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Judgment Day for Journalism

As legacy news organizations falter, digital upstarts are scaling to meet demand

Phillip Smith
Aug 9, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos on Unsplash

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a powerful exchange of ideas between Pierre-Elliott Levasseur, president of La Presse in Montréal, and Canada’s foremost media critic, Jesse Brown.

The exchange reaches an unexpected moment around the 23-minute mark, when Brown presents an emerging trend:

“The percentage of journalists who practice written journalism, who are employed by smaller digital companies, is going to go up and up and up. And the number of journalists who are doing it for newspapers like La Presse is going to go down and down and down.”

Levasseur responds by emphasizing the role large newsrooms have traditionally played in producing enterprise reporting and investigative journalism. We often overlook the importance of this role, he says, when we compare traditional newsrooms with small digital operations.

And this is where things get really interesting. Brown paints a passionate picture of major changes in journalism production underway across the globe:

“Smaller organizations are getting increasingly able to do that kind of deep-dive, enterprise journalism at the same time that, unfortunately, newspapers are becoming less and less able to do that… You still have the most resources and you still are best at it, but that’s kind of shifting too.”

“[And] building something from the ground up to suit the marketplace, to suit where profitability and sustainability is, is a lot easier than adapting something with all kinds of legacy costs into a sustainable model.”

In just a few breaths, Brown captures the industry’s seismic shifts — and the opportunities they present for building from the ground up — more clearly than I was able to in my recent post, “Why journalism entrepreneurship is needed.

When a 14-year veteran of the media industry like Brown talks about these trends, it validates much of what people in the “future of news” have been saying for years: We must reboot the media and start from the ground up. And yet, that sentiment is often met with skepticism. Here’s a great example from media professor Charlie Beckett:

Charlie’s concerns are not unique. I hear these sentiments regularly. I believe the questions surrounding this industry shift toward smaller startups typically boil down to:

  • What are the signals that this new media ecosystem will ever rise to a level that could replace the democratic functions of established news organizations?
  • Where can I find examples of these new, typically reader-funded, news operations that demonstrate they can reach any significant scale?

So, in the interest of generating some healthy debate on the viability of small news organizations playing a significant role in the future of news, let’s dig in.

I recently invested a couple of nights watching the Showtime documentary The Fourth Estate. Its filmmakers go inside the New York Times just ahead of the November 2016 election and follow the incredible stories that play out after the election, right up to events of this past year. It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking. And it highlights the kind of work that large, established news organizations are able to do and the political forces they’re able to withstand.

I reference The Fourth Estate to say that I don’t see a future without the New York Times or the Washington Post in the U.S., or without the Toronto Star or Globe and Mail in Canada. I believe NPR and the CBC will continue to exist in some form. The Associated Press and Canadian Press may even see a period of growth. All of the aforementioned organizations will play a significant role in the media ecosystem of the next decade. What’s hard to predict right now, though, is the size and scope of that role.

I believe that small digital upstarts will become the democracy-serving oases in a time of growing news deserts.

However, as we’ve seen throughout the last decade, the media ecosystem of the future will probably have fewer midsize news organizations: regional papers, small-town papers, local TV, and radio. In Canada, for example, more than 200 local news outlets of all types have closed since 2008. Similar closures are happening across the U.S. as Margaret Sullivan described in her recent Washington Post column, “The local-news crisis is destroying what a divided America desperately needs: Common ground.”

So the question remains: Where’s the proof that small news organizations can scale?

The first two examples of scale I typically point to (both are broken, but illustrative) are BuzzFeed and Vox. Both are roughly a decade old. It only took 10 years for these startups to become global enterprises and household names. Current upstarts will need a bit of time to grow.

Arguably, Vice Media is a similar story. It began to shift away from a print magazine into digital around 2006. Coming from Montreal and covering music and drugs, Vice is a great example of the unexpected places where innovation can arise.

However, as I mentioned in the announcement for the Journalism Entrepreneurship Boot Camp, many aspiring entrepreneurs I meet are hungry for examples to model themselves after. They need examples that are right-sized for what they hope to do, and at a similar stage of growth.

Vice, Vox, and BuzzFeed have outgrown their startup roots — they’re unhelpful examples for most people starting a news business today.

Thankfully, there are other examples of what’s working today at a slightly smaller or younger scale. And, to answer Charlie’s question, there are also many examples outside of those regularly covered in the industry press, like De Correspondent in Holland. Here are some other examples:

  • In the local news space, there are many great examples (like the one recently shared by my fellow John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship alum, Don Day, above). One I’m currently watching closely is the Colorado Sun, “a reader-supported, journalist-owned news outlet focused on investigative, explanatory and narrative journalism.” So far, the outlet has raised over $160,000 on Kickstarter from more than 2,600 supporters. There are so many more examples of digital upstarts in this space: the New Tropic in Miami; the Tyler Loop in Tyler, Texas; and the Devil Strip in Akron, Ohio.
  • On the regional level, I like to point to Canadian examples like the Tyee, National Observer, and the Discourse. Each has very humble beginnings and has proved it can scale to do groundbreaking and award-winning reporting. Each has raised significant funding directly from readers.
  • A quirky example worth examining and understanding is Chapo Trap House, the so-called “Breitbart of the Left.” In less that three years, the podcast has found more than 20,000 Patreon supporters who invest $1.2 million annually in the project. I believe the podcast may have tapped into the elusive segment of the “previously un-newsed” — those without an affiliation to an existing major news organization. This demonstrates the potential for, as Brown puts it, “building something from the ground up to suit the marketplace.”
  • Another powerful example of a local online news startup scaling is VTDigger in Vermont. Following the pattern highlighted in previous examples, it took the site roughly 10 years to reach scale. Today, it breaks stories. It wins awards. It has sustainable revenue and doesn’t have to repay VCs.
  • A final example is Mediapart in France. It has hit the 10-year mark and now has 140,000 members. It is known to regularly impact the French news cycle.

I believe there are a surprising number of digital newsroom experiments underway right now that we simply don’t hear about as much as we should. I also believe some of these experiments will demonstrate they can scale within the next few years. The simple truth is that journalism upstarts are getting better and faster, and their costs are coming down quickly.

My longtime colleague, David Beers, founding editor of the award-winning, largely reader-supported news site the Tyee, once asked the question: “Instead of giving an additional $300 million of annual funding to the CBC (an idea that was proposed by the CBC itself) what would it look like to create a fund that would invest $1 million of funding in 300 new news organizations like the Tyee?”

The simple truth is that journalism upstarts are getting better and faster, and their costs are coming down quickly.

It’s a great thought experiment and one I invite you to try at home: What would a network of “small is beautiful” news organizations sufficient to fill the widening gap in coverage look like? How many newsrooms would there be? How much staffing would they need? What geographic area(s) would they need to cover? What beats would they focus on? Would a country like the U.S. need 300 or 30,000 of these news organizations?

I believe a radically different future for the media ecosystem is not only possible, but very likely. I believe that small digital upstarts will become the democracy-serving oases in a time of growing news deserts. But we have to start doing the work today to get new experiments underway. And we have to start paying more attention to the growing number of examples that already exist.

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