By Glenn Fleishman 07.14.09
If we woke tomorrow with no newspaper on our collective doorstep, (something residents of Ann Arbor, Tucson, and other medium-sized American cities have already experienced), what would go missing along with the pile of newsprint and ad supplements, movie reviews, sports scores, and comics?
Possibly, quite a lot: The routine reporting that promotes civic engagement; the investigative features that require weeks to years of research, information requests and lawsuits; the exposure of corruption, failure and wasted funds at the local, regional and national level. "In every town in America, almost, you have reporters going out and doing humble jobs and turning over rocks every day and seeing what's under them," says John Carroll, the former editor-in-chief of The Los Angeles Times, a man who led his newsroom to 13 Pulitzer Prizes over his 5-year tenure.
These "humble jobs" help keep government honest. David Simon, the creative force behind HBO's The Wire and a former newspaper reporter (once an employee of Carroll's at the Baltimore Sun), put it quite bluntly in a recent congressional hearing: "God, the next 10 or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption."
According to the American Society of News Editors, nearly 6,000 newsroom jobs at daily papers were shed in 2008, and almost 10,000 since a peak in 2001. About 47,000 newsroom jobs remain. "We're losing about a million stories a year in American newspapers," says Ken Doctor, an industry consultant, formerly an executive for two decades at Knight Ridder.
It all sounds rather dire, doesn't it? But a number of independent efforts seem to foretell what the future may entail: nonprofit investigative reporting, nonprofit local news reporting, and ad-supported local news reporting.
Nonprofit investigative reporting is not new, but the troubles of the for-profit news business have focused attention on nonprofit efforts like CIR and the recently launched ProPublica.
"We're trying to find stories that have a moral force, and where change is possible, and we're trying to bring change," says ProPublica's managing editor, Stephen Engelberg. A frequently cited example of nonprofit journalism, ProPublica works closely to develop stories that appear not just on its own site, but in publications like The New York Times, the Denver Post, and radio and television outlets.
The site licenses its content under Creative Commons for noncommercial use (with a broadened definition), and has a Steal Our Stories link at the top of the site. "We don't kid ourselves about how much of the gap we could make up," Engelberg says, but ProPublica does specifically focus on "big, investigative stories." The site is funded largely by a single donor who's committed to funding the site for a few years.
Some in the newspaper world hope that local philanthropists and individuals will help create regional sites after the model of ProPublica and CIR. "You don't need to fund a whole lot of reporters on an individual, local scale to do the job," says Joshua Benton, executive director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, part of Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism.
MinnPost.com isn't quite sui generis, but it's a widely watched experiment that involves a host of former newspaper editors and reporters, with significant funding from both foundations and individual donors. Ditto, the VoiceofSanDiego.org "They basically support 10 to 12 people on a full-time basis," says Doctor, plus paying freelance reporters by the piece, offering stipends and other models.
These and other publications work on both the sexy and non-sexy news alike, from local zoning board and city council meetings, to exposure of fraud, graf, and theft.
Ad-supported online news business models remain the least proven. While newspapers' online versions have sported ads for years, page views and ad rates just don't multiply out for the costs of a modest newsroom — but there are some interesting experiments underway.
The century-plus-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer recently shut down its print operation to switch to a trimmed-down online newsroom of about 20. The P-I had far higher page views while in print than other publications of its size, and hopes to keep its large audience partly by retaining popular columnists and an award-winning editorial cartoonist.
On the other end of the online spectrum, the West Seattle Blog has transformed itself from notes about a neighborhood into a full-time news effort for the site's operator, a former print and broadcast journalist. The online-only P-I, the Ann Arbor News, and a host of other publications have yet to run for long enough to get a stable readership and determine ongoing costs.
But can they work?
"Yes," says Doctor. "It's so new that we can't say it is the model, but it can work on a break-even to slightly profitable level. But how big can it be? And, importantly for readers, and civic life, can it scale into anything resembling having the reporting heft that a daily newspaper has?"
No matter which model, there's a huge gap between the funding (nonprofit) or revenue (ad-supported) versus the expense (reporters' salaries, mostly) of digging up the news. It's going to take time to see what works, at what scales, and whether these new newsrooms can grow to take up the slack that's been left behind.
But the newspaper isn't dead just yet. About 34 million papers are sold or delivered every weekday (and more on the weekend). Even with the huge slide in circulation that began in 2001, ad revenue in 2008 was still $38 billion nationwide.
Doctor estimates that in 2015, newspapers will still be read in 2015 in about 20 percent of households (a decline of about 15 percent). Others project that about 5 to 15 percent of a typical newspaper's readership is actually interested the kind of beat and investigative reporting that's being lost now.
In the end, there is a core audience for real news, but its going to take time to see whether these new newsrooms can grow to fill the reporting gap that's been created by the collapse of print. As Carroll puts it, "There will be journalism, and there will be news. The question is: How good will it be?"