MEDICINE FOR A MENDICANT MEDIA

Government support can revive American journalism

BY JASON PRAMAS


Journalism is in a tough spot. There are tens of thousands of trained journalists in the United States, but a dearth of funding and the rolling collapse of major news outlets prevents many of us from making a living plying our trade. Even as journalism schools continue pumping out thousands of new journalists every year. According to the annual newsroom census by the American Society of News Editors, we’ve dropped from a high of 56,900 jobs in journalism in 1990 to a low of 32,900 jobs in 2015–3,800 jobs lost in the last year counted alone. That’s just in print journalism. The picture for broadcast journalism is somewhat better, but no broadcast news sector is adding lots of new jobs. And there have actually been layoffs at large digital news companies that are supposed to represent the “future of news.” All this as the population served rose from 249 million to 321 million over the quarter century in question. Meaning that more and more Americans live in “news deserts.” Ignored and abandoned by the dwindling number of robust professional news operations. A very dangerous state of affairs for a democracy that requires an informed citizenry to function properly.

New entrants struggle to replace the old news industry

Two developments helped cause the sharp contraction of the news media over the last few decades. First, the absorption of many news outlets by multinational corporations — which then squeezed them mercilessly for profit. Second, the Internet’s near destruction of the old, flawed, advertising-based commercial model that used to fund the production of the majority of American reporting.

Fortunately, there is another significant media sector that produces news. Government-backed public media. Although woefully underfunded by Congress, it has done a good job of staying afloat for almost 50 years. However, its outlook is far from certain, and its commitment to news is mixed. PBS has never produced much news — especially local news — although it is justifiably famous for its documentaries. NPR and its affiliate stations, on the other hand, are now producing more than ever and are fairly stable economically due in part to popular local news shows and the donations they attract. But they have an aging audience — and only small numbers of young people, urban dwellers using public transit, Blacks, and Latinos tune in. Which doesn’t bode well for the future, despite the inroads the network has made with podcasts and other online content.

Neither service is sizable enough to keep enough journalists in the field to make up for ongoing news industry losses. So, neither can produce the amount of solid coverage that our society requires to remain democratic. And that’s unlikely to change with the federal government providing less than 20 percent of PBS and NPR revenue through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other sources. Which annually amounts to only a few dollars per capita while countries like Denmark spend over 100 dollars per capita on public media. Another 20 percent more comes from state and local governments. A figure that has been dropping due to budget cuts since the Great Recession. The rest comes from corporations, foundations, and individual donors that tend to over represent the white, college-educated, suburban, middle and upper classes. Groups that expect certain kinds of programming: garden shows, light opera, and folksy commentary from white guys in overalls. And don’t expect other kinds of programming. Like journalism focusing on the needs of younger, working-class, urban populations of color that live in news deserts.

As the situation has worsened, these factors have led to a wave of new journalism outfits that are attempting to fill the growing holes in local, state and national news coverage. Some are nonprofit, some are for profit, and most are having a hard time making ends meet … let alone flourishing.

Much of my career as a journalist has been spent running such projects. Last year, I co-founded the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) with Chris Faraone and John Loftus — merging my seven year old, community newspaper-sized, online nonprofit Open Media Boston into the new regional investigative reporting incubator. It’s done quite well so far, producing 20 features and over 100 columns, running several community events, and paying good money for work by a couple of dozen area reporters.

But compared to the surviving corporate news outlets — or even alternative metro news publications like the late lamented Boston Phoenix — we’re operating on a shoestring budget. We raised and spent $70,000 in our first year, and just brought in another $25,000 as we enter our second year. Ironically making us incredibly efficient by the standards of the industry. Legions of news startups have tried to make a go of it — mainly online — on even smaller budgets in recent years. Very few of the new entrants started with stable funding. And even fewer have survived to grow into substantial organizations that come anywhere near replacing lost news organizations in their communities.

A study by veteran news executive Alan Mutter said that of 141 digital journalism startups listed by Columbia Journalism Review in 2010 one-quarter had gone under within five years (and he just missed counting Open Media Boston, which I shut down right after his report was released). These were the more established of a universe of hundreds of such startups, but many were still one and two-person operations. I helped launch a network for those online news organizations that same year — now called Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers. Some of those startups have thrived since then by dint of much hard work, experimentation, and willingness to share ideas with other outlets. Of the success stories, both inside and outside LION, only a fraction of the new online publications have been able to build up a larger staff and become forces in their regional news markets.

The largest of those successes — which are nowhere near the size of traditional newsrooms, but are at least moving in the right direction — have usually managed to find some kind of major donor to bankroll their operations. Often a wealthy person or small group of them.

And that’s a problem. There’s no perfect funding system for news production out there. All have their good and bad points. All affect news content. It’s just a question of degree. Ultimately, it’s always up to ethical journalists to resist pressure from any funding source to censor ourselves. Yet the essentially feudal funding system that’s becoming “The Dream” for many American news organizations, large and small, nonprofit and for profit, is seriously problematic.

When journalists go begging, journalism suffers

Going hat-in-hand to get a rich person to dump money on your news outlet — be it the Boston Globe, the Intercept, or the Texas Tribune — means that one more vital institution in our democratic society, the free press, increasingly exists at the sufferance of private wealth. The caprices of the rich can then more closely dictate what kind of news coverage the various American publics will see. Or not see (as we were just reminded when PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel took down Gawker). With no meaningful public oversight.

There are a number of alternatives to that model. BINJ, like many other news organizations, is trying most of them. Memberships and subscriptions (never an easy option in an era when people expect to get their news for free), crowdfunding, benefits, merchandise sales, sponsorships, and newer forms of (mostly digital) advertising are all in play. Foundation grants are also in the mix. However, fortunately or unfortunately, very few foundations give money for news production. And as BINJ’s Chris Faraone has pointed out, the foundations that fund journalism-related projects prefer to give their money to what they consider to be safe bets like university institutes (or the money pit that is the Newseum). Plus, grant funding is often just another form of feudal giving. If, to paraphrase Balzac, “behind every great fortune there is a great crime,” then the same may undoubtedly be said of the many foundations built on such fortunes.

Will BINJ join other news outlets in seeking money from rich people and foundations? Absolutely. We have to. Even though we aspire to pull in most of our budget from smaller donations by large numbers of people to avoid having to deal with editorial pressure from any one funding source, we would have a very hard time getting to that point without dedicated specialist staff that we can only pay if we can get larger chunks of startup money. As a nonprofit, we can’t go for venture capital, and wouldn’t get much if we could — since we’re an investigative reporting group that is frequently critical of giant corporations. So we do our best to find the coolest funders we can, and to pull in enough money to grow strong enough to chart a more independent growth course.

Even if we succeed and manage to hire 10, 20, or even 50 full-time journalists, and even if 100 other newer entrants to the news market — nonprofit and for profit alike — do the same nationwide, we’re still not going to replace the news ecology that once existed. And most jobs in the industry will remain low-paid, short-term, contract gigs — forcing talented journalists to scrape by as freelancers for a few months or years until inevitably throwing in the towel. So, begging rich people and foundations for our proverbial supper is clearly not a viable economic long-term economic strategy for the news industry. The much-vaunted “citizen journalists” are not going to fill the gap either — winking in and out of existence like so many untrained, unpaid, unaccountable fireflies as they do.

The alternative to mendicant journalism

Is there a better alternative to today’s busted model of mendicant journalism? I think so. The one least discussed in this country in this era, but perhaps the most important. Public funding. Real public funding. Not the anemic version conservatives have stuck us with thanks to ceaseless attacks against PBS and NPR since their formation in 1969 and 1970 respectively. This is the road mostly not travelled in the US. We need a big public fund like the National Endowment for the Arts or National Endowment for the Humanities — a National Endowment for Journalism, as has been periodically proposed — that would dole out grants to organizations like BINJ to produce a broad array of news in the public interest. And allow us to build the large grassroots member base that would make us truly independent. Given the long experience that many democratic nations (including our own) have with such arrangements, there’s every reason to believe that more public support would spark a flowering of journalism akin to the one that resulted from the postal subsidies granted to newspapers at the dawn of the republic. Not create the kind of a censorious Soviet-style news regime invoked by the hard right every time the issue of public funding for news production is brought up.

One key to avoiding such a regime will be running any public funding institution for news production as democratically as possible. Diverse regional boards that are elected by the public-at-large for limited terms could be put in charge of disbursing grants on a regular cycle. Staff could be hired to support the boards and housed in existing public facilities. To qualify for funding, news organizations would have to meet certain professional standards, demonstrate some ability to raise money, and produce content for a reasonable period of time (say, a year). Priority could be given to news organizations set up to cover underserved communities and run by journalists from those communities.

That’s just one possible public approach. There are many others worth considering. Foremost among them, fully funding PBS and NPR — after cutting the ties that bind them to oligarchs like the Koch brothers — and opening their doors to the diverse range of views called for in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Which will allow them to significantly increase the size, reach, and relevance of their news operations.

Where will the money come from for such innovations? A wealthy society like ours can figure it out. Eliminate funding for nuclear weapons. Tax the rich and corporations. And we’ll have a whole new journalism ballgame.


Looking for a good book on the idea of government funding for journalism? Check out “The Death and Life of American Journalism” by John Nichols and Robert McChesney.


This article replaces the July 21, 2016 Apparent Horizon column.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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