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Searching for the Future of Civic Journalism

Experiments Blossom, But Solutions Are Elusive

Jul 15, 2010


Paper Cuts map

Paper Cuts' interactive map shows readers the extent of layoffs and buyouts in the newspaper industry across the United States. As of July 13, 2010, the number of jobs lost this year alone stood at 1,892.

 

For a clear picture of the demise of the American newspaper, there is no better place to go than a website called Paper Cuts.

There, on an interactive map, is a tally of every newspaper in the country that has closed and every newspaper employee who has lost a job since 2007, when the industry's decline accelerated. A recent total to date: 168 newspapers shuttered; 34,845 jobs lost. This doesn't consider some of the nation's largest newspapers now in bankruptcy and facing uncertain fates, from the Los Angeles Times to the Chicago Tribune to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

For foundation grantmakers and anyone else concerned with the healthy functioning of civic life in a democracy, these numbers are sobering. Without routine access to the public information that newspapers once provided – reporting of actions from local city councils to public safety departments to school boards – citizens can't make the informed decisions necessary for self-government.

In response, the Hewlett Foundation, which has long supported a variety of journalistic enterprises, has recently made several grants to help civic journalism reinvent itself in the new century. The work ranges from a $150,000 grant to ProPublica, the nonprofit newsroom that won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, to $1.2 million for California Watch, a Sacramento-based nonprofit newsroom covering the California statehouse and statewide issues.

"Foundations have long cared about these issues because they care about public debate to create sound public policy," says Kristi Kimball, a program officer with Hewlett's Education Program, who manages the grant to California Watch. "And that interest has grown as the loss of journalism resources has accelerated."

A Perfect Storm of Problems

The causes of the demise of daily print journalism are many, from the Internet's crippling the business model of advertising and classified sales, to changing readership habits, to the current Great Recession, to name but some.

Indeed, the rise of the Internet and the concomitant decline of daily journalism have created a seemingly contradictory landscape where people have access to more information than ever, yet original reporting about many aspects of civic life grows ever scarcer. A leading observer on the social impact of the Internet, New York University's Clay Shirky, is not alone in predicting a rise in government corruption in coming years until the situation is reversed. "The problem is especially acute in the United States, where fifty statehouses and countless counties and municipalities make the problem of tracking government activities particularly difficult," Shirky says.

The decline of daily journalism has prompted a broad range of experiments across the country as local journalists, Internet experts, foundations, philanthropists, and concerned citizens search for a new self-sustaining model for the work once performed by newspapers.

"We've gotten over the shock of what's happened, and we're in a transitional phase," says Jon Funabiki, a journalism professor at San Francisco State University and former Ford Foundation program officer, who has a contract with the Hewlett Foundation to research the various experiments across the country and inform the Foundation about how it might support them. "It's still too early to predict what will happen, but a lot of people are trying to solve the problem, and that's good news."

To date, none of these new experiments in providing local and regional news – like the online Voice of San Diego in Southern California, the MinnPost in Minneapolis, and the new Bay Citizen in San Francisco – has found a business model that will allow it to replace the editorial resources lost when a city's newspaper closes or cuts back.

The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, which had an editorial staff of close to 500 several years ago to cover the region and statehouse, now has about 150 people to do the same work, and its future remains uncertain. In contrast, the nonprofit Bay Citizen, recently launched in San Francisco with $5 million in seed money from philanthropist Warren Hellman, currently has just fifteen editorial employees and is forging partnerships with a range of bloggers and others to try to augment coverage.

Philanthropy a Mainstay of the New Journalism Projects

Traditional newspapers themselves are experimenting to find a path to the future, but most of the new projects are nonprofits, relying on philanthropy or a combination of philanthropy, small individual donations, and advertising to survive.

It remains unclear whether philanthropy's role will prove to be transitional or something longer term. But some veteran journalists are already saying that some kinds of journalism may need permanent philanthropic support if they are to survive.

One of these is Richard Tofel, general manager of Hewlett grantee ProPublica, the New York City-based investigative reporting site. Tofel, a former assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal now responsible for ProPublica's finances, singled out investigative, international, and statehouse reporting as three such areas.

ProPublica Pulitzer toast

ProPublica Editor-in-Chief Paul Steiger hoists a glass to toast the non-profit journalism enterprise’s first Pulitzer Prize. Contributor Sheri Fink won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for her article about New Orleans Memorial Medical Center in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. ProPublica is one of the success stories in attempts revive journalism in the digital world. Photo courtesy of Dan Nguyen/ProPublica.

 

"It's clear at least to me that the market is failing with regard to these areas of reporting, and there's no reason to think that will be reversed," Tofel says. He proposes that this work be viewed as what economists call a "public good,'' like the provision of streets and parks, but be privately supported by the communities served, just as they fund symphonies.

"We need to create a new class of cultural institutions that revolve around journalism and fund them the way we fund other cultural institutions," he says. "Some would say that's the bad news, but I'd say that's the good news. If we didn't have a means to sustain such institutions, we'd have no art museums, no dance companies, no theaters. And we do privately fund those assets in communities all around the country, in good times and bad."

The "Beats" Go On

For his part, Funabiki agrees that some coverage areas ("beats" in journalism parlance) may need to be sustained as nonprofit organizations if they are to survive, but does not think it is clear yet which these will be. He cites beats defined by subject – like education, the environment, and health – as potential candidates because funders have already shown interest in supporting these specific areas of reporting.

Indeed, projects like Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit organization funded by the Kaiser Family Foundation, has hired an editorial staff of former newspaper journalists to report on a broad range of health issues, distributed via its own website and the publications of various partners. The Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College at Columbia University, recently launched the Hechinger Report to do something similar for education reporting.

The nonprofit California Watch, another Hewlett grantee and a project of the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting, has become the third-largest statehouse news bureau after the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee. It covers a range of statewide policy issues from education and health and welfare to politics and the environment, and is experimenting with an innovative mix of revenue sources to become self-sustaining someday. Approaches range from having news outlets like television and newspapers pay for stories, to selling Web advertising, to deploying social media to attract donors.

Professor Funabiki, who made grants to journalism at the Ford Foundation, says it will take the combined innovation of journalism, technology, and business experts working together on projects to invent the new models that will enable civic journalism of all stripes to thrive in the twenty-first century.

"Right now, there is more innovation on the journalism and technology sides of the equation than on the business side," he says. "That may be one place where foundation support can really help."

Robert Rosenthal, a veteran newspaper editor and executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, says that if the philanthropic community can help the various experiments as they search for new self-sustaining models, he is optimistic that civic journalism will survive.

"The number of people who want to do this work and who understand its importance hasn't diminished," Rosenthal says. "I see the ardor for it in people who are twenty-five and thirty. If the philanthropic support is there for the transition, I think there will be solutions."

 

Note: an earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that Warren Hellman contributed $10 million in seed money to The Bay Citizen. The number has been corrected to reflect the fact that he contributed $5 million.