Notes about the Future of Urban Journalism, Part 3

Urban journalism: a new focus for civic philanthropy?

People in cities want public art. They want zoos. Orchestras. Parks. Museums. Soon, a critical mass of them will want good urban journalism. And, just as they fund the other amenities, civic philanthropists will soon be funding your local news.

Here’s what I’m predicting: in the not so distant future, civic philanthropists looking for high impact ways to benefit local communities will start aggressively funding non-profit organizations dedicated to producing professional journalism about local issues. They will do this because, as local for-profit newspapers die or shrink, they will realize how important good public service journalism—the stuff newspapers used to fund and produce—is to the vitality of their communities.

Or at least we should be hoping this is what happens.

Many business analysts think its increasingly unlikely that newspapers as we know them now will survive much longer. This is—as I’ve said in earlier posts in this series—a problem for cities.

Daily newspapers do a lot of work for cities, including the critical job of supplying public service journalism about local issues. These types of stories and reports about important political, economic and social matters will be extinct—for the most part—when newspapers are gone. Bloggers and citizen journalists, even the most extensive and liveliest networks of them, can’t replicate the depth or frequency of what local newspapers once produced.

Why should we be hoping for civic philanthropists to rescue local news? Surely if local news is so valuable someone will figure out a way to make money from producing it. There are tons of suggestions out there about how to do this.

From what I can tell, these suggestions sort themselves into two approaches.

One approach wants to change newspapers into lean, mean elite magazines. Under this model, newspapers embrace their smaller scale. They publish weekly, not daily. They celebrate a more limited scope. They concentrate on excellence. They make money like some magazines do—by appealing to an elite audience and selling high-priced, highly targeted advertising.

The other approach seeks to make money reporting and analyzing local news in an online format. This usually involves dumping print altogether, but mixing traditional newspaper-like content with blogs and other features that allow readers to post comments, report on happenings, rank and share content and upload photos and video.

Each group of suggestions might well result in a sustainable business model for some form of local news purveyor. Many people recommend blending the two approaches. But I don’t think either approach (blended or not) could sustain a daily package of comprehensive and credible coverage of local issues. Producing such a package is expensive. Without sufficient resources, it just won’t be possible to match the scope and depth of what local newspapers used to offer.

I’m not a business analyst. My sense of the economics necessary to support this kind of daily news package is based on informal impressions gathered from what I read in the papers and online.

With that caveat, here’s why—more specifically—I’m skeptical of the sustainability of these approaches.

While the make-it-a-magazine approach might work for newspapers with national circulation, I’m less convinced that smaller markets could support this. After all, weekly newspapers and even monthly local magazines are struggling now too.

The prospects of the online approach are perhaps more attractive, but most local newspapers have significant online portals now—and while they have improved revenues—revenues are flattening. More profoundly, though, the trouble with relying on online advertising revenues for a local paper is that local advertisers aren’t as willing to pay as much for web views as they are for paper subscribers: the revenue stream just isn’t as thick.

And thanks to Craigslist and other free or near-free online classified ad web sites, both approaches no longer have access to that formerly rich revenue vein for newspapers.

If my guesswork is right, we’ll have to look outside the market to fund the kind of professional urban journalism that cities need and deserve. That’s why we’ll need civic philanthropists.

Journalists are already exploring new ways to finance their work. Spot.Us uses a crowdsourcing model to match story ideas with journalists and donors to fund the work. ProPublica calls itself a non-profit “newsroom” that produces public service investigative journalism funded by a number of foundations and philanthropists. The Center for Public Integrity is much the same. Foundations have been funding journalism about particular issues for years. The Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, for example, funds journalism about health issues.

The model I like best for funding local public service journalism at the right scale is the multifaceted one used by National Public Radio. NPR funds itself with grants from foundations, corporate underwriters and membership drives. Of course, to maintain credibility and independence, non-profit local news purveyors would have to erect effective firewalls of separation between the editorial and fundraising sides of their operations—much like NPR does.

The reason I like this model best is that it seems most likely to provide the kind of stability and resources that are needed to produce professional public service journalism over the long-term. The other models alone—crowdsourcing or funding for specific kinds of coverage—are either inherently unreliable or too ad hoc for this purpose.

Not only could the NPR model work to fund urban journalism, I actually think it will work. I think a critical mass of both elitist wealthy civic philanthropists and regular middle-class city residents would be happy to help support quality public service journalism for their community. Testing this hypothesis right now—in the middle of a deep economic downturn—might temper my optimism, but I’d be willing to bet on its near-term future success.

In any case, as local newspapers fade and leave a void of public service journalism, civic philanthropists now have a new opportunity to do good for their communities.

This is the third part of a series of posts I’m writing about the future of urban journalism. The next--and final--post will be a sketch of what a post-newspaper local news organization might look like (if I had my way). Read the rest of the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4.

For excellent articles about journalism and its future, check out American Journalism Review, Poynter Online and the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

(Photo credit: A screen grab from ProPublica's site on December 19, 2008.)


eclisham said...

The difficulty is that, for 200 years or so, the same technology that was best for delivering news was also best for delivering commercial information, and that is no longer true. The harsh reality is that journalism isn't a business model, but we've all been lulled into thinking it is. So, as you point out, we need to look for new funding sources to support the journalism product.

Smart newspaper organizations are figuring out that news delivery doesn't have to be on paper (the fixed investments in printing equipment, plus the ink, newsprint and delivery costs, are some of the things that really weigh down a newspaper's P&L), which is why you're seeing more urban newspapers cut back on printing days, home delivery, etc., and substituting digital delivery.

On the business side, there are many ways besides print advertising to connect businesses with local customers -- paid local search, video, email and text, and lead generation, to name a few -- but very few organizations are really maximizing those. The crisis is immediate: either they figure out right away how to take back this part of their business from the out-of-town interlopers like Google, Yelp!, etc., or they're done.

We are a research/leadership development organization that has spent the last two years focused on exactly these questions. You can see our work at www.newspapernext.org. We're not done by any means, but the resources there are the start of a way forward for newspapers, if they want to take advantage of it. If not, it's pretty clear they won't be the ones involved in future business models to support journalism.

Anonymous said...

I work for a local new media non-profit that would seem to fit your description. We do almost everything online, but work with a variety of different formats and medias. We are entirely funded by donors, which we like to think frees us to provide a little more depth and research than outlets that are under constant pressure to get hits and ad revenue.