The first decades of the twenty-first century have been marked by, among other catastrophes, the downward spiral of the press (aka the media or “the enemy of the people”). But wait! What if the real story is not the obliteration of the press, but a reinvention?
In the past, news and information were delivered through the Post Office as an indispensable government service. Then came the telegraph and telephone. Presses rolled. Now, of course, everything comes via digital, instant transmission. Print is available but most people say its future is tenuous. Audio, video, and (maybe) virtual reality are omnipresent.
And advertising paid the bills until it did not, unless you were Google, Facebook, and other tech predators. A new universe of resources had to be devised to match the modern means of delivery, a process that is well enough along to recognize it, even if it is too soon to declare it done. Think of it as Build Back Better for news without a dysfunctional Congress in the way.
The core of the transformation is making news delivery, once again, a public service, businesslike in management but more than a business measured by profit. The models of NPR and PBS, both now venerable, are philanthropy, membership, sponsorship, and a minimum of government money which is always fraught. Nonprofit journalism at the local and national level is gaining traction. The legacy media – national newspapers, magazines, and cable news – occupy their own space with, for better or worse, their challenges and successes. BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox, and other enterprises of the digital age ricochet around, seeking profit, viability, and audiences.
The most exciting and in some respects underestimated developments are in local outlets nationwide and some national news sites that cover topics like education, health and criminal justice that are almost all nonprofit in concept and goals.
For a rundown on what is happening, I am in the unique position of having as a resource my daughter-in-law, Sarabeth Berman, who was recruited two years ago to lead the American Journalism Project, one of the main incubators, funders, and guides for the nonprofit news universe. In this “Two Reporters” podcast, you can hear her describe in some detail the range of activity that her organization pursues.
Sarabeth recently wrote to me to describe AJP’s portfolio of thirty-two grantees, “diverse in every sense of the word.” Here are just a few: Mountain State Spotlight in West Virginia, led by two of the best journalists in the state; Outlier Media in Detroit, which focuses on serving low-income audiences, primarily using text messaging to deliver stories; VT Digger in Vermont, the largest news organization in the state. Recently announced were the Houston Local News Initiative, with $20 million raised so far from the city’s philanthropies; the Ohio Local News Initiative, supported by the Cleveland Foundation and a coalition of other Ohio foundations, which will launch newsrooms statewide; the Wichita Beacon, which is expanding an existing news organization across Kansas.
Report for America, modeled on Teach for America and AmeriCorps, places journalists in small- or medium-size local newsrooms, which are invariably strapped and pays much of their salaries. RFA fellows now number in the hundreds.
The situation in Chicago is especially encouraging, given how grim the news environment there was until recently. The once great Tribune is a shell, eviscerated by a series of rapacious owners. Just last month, the tabloid Sun-Times newspaper and the public radio station WBEZ merged and will, collectively, have the biggest newsroom in the country’s third largest city, operating as a nonprofit. How exactly that will be organized is still in the works.
Chicago’s respected Better Government Association has received $10 million from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation (based on the McCormick fortune made by the Chicago Tribune and other fabled institutions). This funding will support investigative and narrative reporting across the state in partnership with new and existing newsrooms.
Block Club is a hyperlocal news organization covering Chicago neighborhoods. It has won accolades, and readers tell me is one of the best sources of what interests them most.
Having observed the press for a very, very long time – and as one of the founders of the Chicago News Cooperative in 2009, a nonprofit that was, in retrospect, ahead of its time – I consider three factors that determine the destiny of news start-ups:
Vision. What are the goals in news coverage? The most important are accountability, information, and appealing descriptions of our daily lives and times. Visionaries need to fill in the canvas with details. Ingenuity, creativity and flexibility are required.
Leadership. Publishers and editors need the requisite skills and charisma to galvanize their teams. The first-generation founders of the most successful nonprofits have shown what it takes: John Thornton and Evan Smith at Texas Tribune; the Sandler Foundation, Paul Steiger, and Richard Tofel at ProPublica; Neil Barsky, Bill Keller, and Carroll Bogert at the Marshall Project; Thornton and Elizabeth Green at Chalkbeat, which covers education. There are many more across the country on a list that seems to be growing almost daily.
Money. Now known as sustainable funding. As with every enterprise, the principal necessity is to “pay the rent” – to possess enough cash to meet everyday expenses while also having funds on hand to enable investment and innovation. That’s where the new models have to be especially monitored. The need for multiple revenue streams for support is essential.
So much has been troubled for so long that it may be hard to appreciate the upside. That the situation is getting better is beyond doubt. How far can it go? Our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts will guide us as we go along. In a time of rampant cynicism and gloom about the trade I have been in for almost sixty years, I am an optimist.