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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Tom Stites: Taking stock of the state of web journalism

We may be five years into the big push for web journalism, argues the veteran editor, but we’re still a long way from a sustainable model to support the knowledge needed in local communities. Part 1 of 3.
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Editor’s note: Tom Stites had a long career in newspapers, editing Pulitzer-winning projects and working at top newspapers like The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. In recent years, he’s shifted his emphasis to trying to figure out a new business model for journalism through the Banyan Project. Here, Tom outlines where he believes web journalism stands today and one model he thinks might work; this is part one, here’s part two, and here’s part three.

It’s stocktaking time — five years since the Big March to the digital journalism future stepped off in 2006, strutting toward what was widely trumpeted as inevitable triumph. Auspicious events amplified the cheering:

  • The City University of New York launched its Graduate School of Journalism with an innovative curriculum and hired the outspoken citizen-journalism advocate Jeff Jarvis to direct a new interactive media program and teach entrepreneurship.
  • Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society widened its interest in the growing edges of news by adding to its roster of fellows Dan Gillmor, author of the seminal 2004 participatory journalism book We the Media, and the protoblogger Doc Searls.
  • In his widely followed PressThink blog, New York University journalism Prof. Jay Rosen headlined an item The People Formerly Known as the Audience; it immediately became a defining meme for journalism on the web, which empowers everyone to participate.
  • The Knight Foundation, the premier funder of journalism projects, kicked off its $5-million-a-year News Challenge grants program.

So, five years later, how’s the Big March working out for journalism — and for the democracy that’s so dependent on it?

  • As the digital march began, newspaper advertising revenue began its own march — off the cliff: five straight years of decline, verging on a 50-percent plunge. The decline is a bit less grim as it moves into its sixth year, but it shows no sign of turning around. The number of dailies has been in decline since 1973 and — no surprise — the failure trend accelerated with the ad crash. Newspapers are just starting to make some headway with metered website paywalls that show promise of generating Internet revenue that can offset more than a tiny fraction of print losses.
  • A parallel march, of laid-off reporters, editors, and producers leaving newsrooms of all kinds, has cut the nation’s salaried news personnel by almost a quarter over the same period. Despite contributions from varied web journalism efforts, the net amount of original reporting, the bedrock of journalism’s public good, is declining sharply. And so is journalism’s nourishment of civic health and democracy.
  • Two Knight-funded studies of web journalism efforts, including the comprehensive 2009 report of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities, have praised lots of interesting efforts but found no business models that are both self-sustaining and replicable from community to community. The Knight News Challenge has run its five-year course and, after strategic review, the foundation says it will shift to three 12-week rounds in 2012; the foundation says it is shifting to include more of a “social investing” venture capital strategy in its work.
  • The most prominent web journalism business model with corporate millions behind it, AOL’s Patch, is drawing wide scrutiny and little if any optimism outside AOL that it will prove sustainable (sample).

“Even as the [Knight] Commission did its work, the situation was getting dramatically worse,” Mike Fancher, the retired editor of The Seattle Times who helped write its report, wrote recently in a follow-up white paper. “Perhaps most importantly, emerging media struggle to be sustainable businesses.”

The buzz about how bloggers and citizen journalists will save the day, once almost deafening, has died down to a murmur, although the buzz about Twitter, Facebook, and cellphone video cameras saving the day has picked up thanks to their powerful contributions to coverage of major breaking stories, from the Arab spring to Occupy Wall Street. But the triumphant march to the digital future, at least when measured in terms of original reporting, has yet to lead anywhere near triumph.

Yet the picture is not entirely bleak.

Here and there local web news sites have figured out what it takes to sustain themselves — the West Seattle Blog, for one, is exemplary — but ambitious local sites, nonprofit and for-profit, almost all rely on the benevolence of grant-makers, people who donate their labor, or both. On the national scale, the cluster of Talking Points Memo sites are a notable, and self-sustaining, reporting success.

As for newspapers and the Internet, Bill Keller, the The New York Times columnist who stepped down as executive editor in September, sees cause for optimism. Keller writes that the Internet “has given us new ways of gathering news, and new ways of telling stories. It has enlarged our audience many fold. It has tapped into the creative energy of good journalists and engendered — at The Times, and elsewhere — an openness to experimentation.”

On the nonprofit side, ProPublica’s 2008 arrival made a justifiably big splash, but it, like many major nonprofit sites, is heavily dependent on the continuing generosity of a major donor. Funder-supported metro-scale online news efforts have sprung up in several cities, with some showing potential to become self-sustaining institutions, notably The New Haven Independent, MinnPost in the Twin Cities, and Voice of San Diego.

The great perils to nonprofit sites are that (1) foundations rarely engage in long-term support of nonprofit ventures; (2) wealthy people who write big checks to found high-profile nonprofits often find new interests and move on, and (3) volunteers burn out. At a media conference a few months ago, an editor for a vibrant West Coast local news web nonprofit told me, with a grin, that its business plan included starvation. And for all the attention that grants to journalism efforts have received, add up all that funding and it totals only a tiny fraction of what Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute estimated, in 2009, as a $1.6 billion annual reduction in newsroom salaries. And an IRS decision to hold up a flood of journalism organizations’ applications for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status raises the question if nonprofit journalism efforts have a future, period.

So what would triumph look like? The 2009 Knight Commission report lays out a comprehensive picture of the problems that need to be solved. Here are my Big Three important challenges:

1. Create self-sustaining web journalism business models. Legacy models — newspapers, broadcast news, and magazines — were not only self-sustaining (to say the least) for more than a century but were also easily replicable from community to community. Five years after the Big March stepped off, there is yet to be even one community web journalism site that has proven to be both self-sustaining (without continuing foundation support) and replicable. If we can’t create web journalism models that will work financially in communities across the land, there’s no serious way to address Challenges No. 2 and 3.

“Community news sites are not a business yet,” concludes New Voices: What Works, the Knight-funded 2010 report by J-Lab at American University, which studied 46 of them. Jan Schaffer, the executive director, wrote of the findings on J-Lab’s blog: “Launching is the easy part; living on is hard.”

A year ago, after attending the first Block by Block conference for local news sites — about 125 were represented — Susan Mernit, founder of the widely admired Oakland Local news and community site, blogged plaintively:

Folks, we have a movement, but we have no tangible support.

“We have voices applauding our willingness to work long hours for little or no pay, cheerleading the good — and the news — we provide to our communities — but not organized to fund us…and certainly not yet focused on helping us get the health insurance and the business infrastructure that will make our local endeavors flourish…

2. Serve the broad public, not just the affluent. In a keynote speech at the Media Giraffe Conference on the future of journalism in 2006 — as the Big March was stepping off — I laid out how newspapers, which produce the vast majority of original reporting, had narrowed their focus to the affluent because current advertisers want to reach only upscale spenders. Thus, they turned their backs on the less-than-affluent public who once had been their bread-and-butter readers. Given that one size does not fit all — more than half of U.S. households have no investments, for example, so newspapers’ personal finance columns rarely help them — the majority of Americans are now ill served by existing media. The situation has only gotten worse in the last five years, and almost all non-hyperlocal web journalism is aimed at elite niches. And AOL deliberately chooses only affluent communities for its hundreds of hyperlocal Patch sites.

3. Deliver journalism that people can trust. This summer’s annual Gallup survey of confidence in U.S. institutions found only 28 percent of respondents reporting a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in newspapers, and 27 percent saying the same of television news — down almost half from historic highs. If trust is poisoned, the toxin infects all of journalism: How informed can the electorate be — and how well can they make citizenship decisions — if people have scant confidence in the journalism they’re getting or, worse, ignore it altogether because their distrust is so deep?

Doc Searls likes to say that the Internet is only five seconds out from its Big Bang, that we’re just starting to discover the forms it can take. This long view is comforting — until you consider that our democracy is crumbling fast and needs robust journalism desperately.

“Journalistic institutions do not need saving, they need creating,” Fancher wrote in his white paper. “America needs ‘informed communities’ in which journalism is abundant in many forms and accessible through many convenient platforms. This will require experimentation…This is a time of discovery.”

Tomorrow: A future-of-journalism frame that focuses on actual people — and democracy.

Tom Stites, president and founder of the Banyan Project, which is building a model for web journalism as a reader-owned cooperative, was a 2010-2011 fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard.

Photo of banyan tree by Jeff Stvan used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • Callmejen27

    Sorry, but you are wrong. You say there is not one community web journalism site that is self-sufficient without donations or the backing of the rich.

    There was one.

  • Perry Gaskill

    “Five years after the Big March stepped off, there is yet to be even one community web journalism site that has proven to be both self-sustaining (without continuing foundation support) and replicable.”

    No offense, but this seems not true. As evidence, during the past year the Columbia Journalism Review has been building a News Frontier database which gives some clear indications that there are a number of community startups around which have proven to be at least modestly profitable. And the number is growing.

    Although it’s also possible to debate how “replicable” a given community site may be, the reality is that print media has faced a similar replicability issue in the past in the sense that a newspaper, for example, tended to be a reflection of the community it served, and its sustainability was based on the dynamics of a particular market. Sort of in the same way water reaches its own level.

  • http://westcoastchops.wordpress.com/ Adam Popescu

    Scary stuff: “Two Knight-funded studies of web journalism efforts, including the comprehensive 2009 report
    of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities, have
    praised lots of interesting efforts but found no business models that
    are both self-sustaining and replicable from community to community. ”

  • http://twitter.com/tomstites Tom Stites

    Actually, that’s only part of what I said.  The whole thing is that there’s yet to be a Web journalism model that’s both self-sufficient and replicable from community to community.  I do say that “Here and there local web news sites have figured out what it takes to sustain themselves” and cited the West Seattle Blog as exemplary. 

  • http://twitter.com/tomstites Tom Stites

    Thanks for citing the News Frontier database, a useful tool for understanding just what it calls itself: http://www.cjr.org/the_news_frontier_database/ .

    Any difference there is between us probably comes down to, as you suggest, the definition of “replicable.”  We’re in agreement that, as I mention in the piece, there are a number of community startups that are sustaining themselves — I just discovered another yesterday.  But they’re still way too rare, by my lights — and the net original reporting loss remains huge.

    It’s early in the evolution of Web forms, in a phase when people keep starting over to invent this new kind of wheel. This is natural. With time, let’s hope, more easily replicable models will emerge and thriving sites will become much more common.

    Also, I’m concerned that almost all the self-sustaining sites serve affluent readerships where advertising dollars are plentiful.  

  • http://twitter.com/tomstites Tom Stites

    Or are you being ironic and I’m being tin-eared?  I’m just tuning into the fact that “There was one” is in the past tense.  ;>)

  • Perry Gaskill

    Thanks for the reply, Tom. Although your point about affluence as low-hanging fruit is valid, it’s also true that it can be a red herring. Consider the following:

    Howard Owens runs a site in Upstate New York called The Batavian. Batavia, a town of around 16,000, would not normally be considered affluent. According to Howard, one of the things that sets Batavia somewhat apart is that it has a comparatively high count of businesses. In order to leverage that, he has also implemented a relatively low-cost ad structure based on flat-rate– not CPM– pricing.

    A few years ago, The Washington Post tried a doomed effort in affluent Loudon County, Virginia called LoudonExtra. During a discussion after LoudonExtra was shut down, a commenter from the area said, “They (The Post) didn’t know anything about horses.” Point being, one supposes, that there is affluence, and then there is affluence of a different color.

  • http://twitter.com/mauramaura Maura Youngman

    “The great perils to nonprofit sites are that (1) foundations rarely engage in long-term support of nonprofit ventures; (2) wealthy people who write big checks to found high-profile nonprofits often find new interests and move on, and (3) volunteers burn out.” 
    Thanks for the informative post, Tom. I wonder if (1) and (2) here are actually just donor fatigue– emblematic of the non-profit world in general, and not just non-profit news organizations?

    Additionally, in terms of volunteers, are many non-profit news orgs actually relying so heavily on volunteers that this a key issue facing the industry? Which news organizations are relying on the volunteers? Who are the volunteers? What are they contributing and how frequently are they burning out? And if it is such a prevalent problem, perhaps it can be addressed by tweaking management styles and figuring out better ways to revitalize the volunteer force? 

    Thanks!
    Maura

  • http://twitter.com/tomstites Tom Stites

    You raise excellent questions, and the short answer is that people are trying all kinds of things and most of them don’t work.  Here’s a good study that offers some more detailed answers after exploring 46 sites:  http://www.kcnn.org/nv_whatworks/pdf.

  • http://twitter.com/tomstites Tom Stites

    And thank you, Perry, for this nuanced perspective — and for the interesting context for the Batavian’s success.

  • Bill Smith

    Tom,
    Your source (ASNE) for the decline in the number of reporters “of all kinds” is limited to daily newspapers, and shows that the number is now close to what it was three decades ago. 
    If you added local television and all other media to the mix, would you see more or fewer journalists compared to three decades ago?
    Not disputing that the past five years have been tough on all media. But I think that focusing too much on one medium over a relatively short time period leads to skewed conclusions.
    Also, it seems to me that the relative lack of coverage by news organizations of low income communities is nothing new. Publishers have always tended to focus attention on the consumers advertisers want to reach.
    That doesn’t mean it’s not a problem — just that it’s not a new one.
    Bill

  • http://twitter.com/jonathanstray jonathanstray

    “But the triumphant march to the digital future, at least when measured in terms of original reporting, has yet to lead anywhere near triumph.”

    Why is “original reporting” the yardstick? Why not “population being informed”?

    I’m not being flippant. This is a serious question about how we measure how well journalism is doing.

  • http://twitter.com/tomstites Tom Stites

    Absolutely, broadcast news has cut back, too, and continues to cut back.  Perhaps I’m biased, but at the local level broadcast news has long done so little original reporting that I discount that loss.

    And lack of coverage of low-income communities is indeed an old problem.  What’s newer is lack of coverage of middle-income communities and concerns, in that the only advertisers left only want to reach the affluent. Now almost all who are less than affluent are in the same desert — thanks to shifts in  advertising landscape the publishers have discarded both the poor and middle-income there.

  • http://twitter.com/tomstites Tom Stites

    I agree that how we measure journalistic well-being is a crucial question.  I’ve come down on the side of original reporting for several reasons, and I focus on newspapers because they have long been by far the largest source original reporting.

    Communities:  As newspaper staffs shrink, fewer and fewer communities have adequate original reporting about their day-to-day civic realities.  Without this original reporting there is no way for their publics to be informed, weakening civic cohesion.  Coverage of state government has taken a huge hit; many metro papers have abandoned coverage of some suburban areas.

    Accountability reporting:  Enterprising efforts to get underneath the surface of the news has taken a terrible hit in the last five years because it is time-consuming and thus expensive.  Unless this reporting is done, the public cannot be informed — and cannot hold public officials accountable.

    Foreign and national reporting:  We are part of an ever-shrinking world, and what goes on overseas has greater and greater meaning to our local lives.  Yet almost all U.S. news organizations have eliminated or all but eliminated foreign and national bureaus.  Even The Washington Post has closed all its national bureaus.

    So, no matter how you get your news — sophisticated Web sifting, aggregators, newspapers, broadcast, wigwag — with less and less original reporting it’s getting harder and harder for people to be informed.

    Exception: News junkie/policy wonks, whose focus is not on any particular community but on the high-level political struggle over policy and partisan political advantage, are a position to be informed from the big chunks down to the granular level of raw data.  But this is a tiny elite, and democracy needs the broad public to be informed, not just the elites.

  • Anonymous

    Looking at the chart of the number of newspaper and total circulation, what strikes me is that they began merging/closing in 1980, but circulation didn’t decline until 1991.

    https://fbcdn-sphotos-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/382925_2579441019243_1650953057_32378974_1157964176_n.jpg