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Dec. 7, 2011, 11 a.m.

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.

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.

POSTED     Dec. 7, 2011, 11 a.m.
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