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The Public Publisher: Solving our media emergency

A possible solution for preserving the market for quality, independent journalism.

A few months ago I was invited to present at the King County Municipal League’s Bold Ideas for Regional Change forum in Seattle's  Pioneer Square.

Ten speakers were asked to deliver 20 slides in 5 minutes “about their breakthrough ideas or innovations.” The point was to hear fast-paced presentations on innovative ideas that could potentially have a large impact in King County and Washington State.

Most of the other presenters were far more upbeat and engaging than I was. A better waterfront in Bremerton and more sustainable buildings on Capitol Hill captivated the diverse audience of civic-minded leaders.

My idea was that the public sector – as it has in Europe and Japan – may be needed to help support competitive, independent public journalism. I am the first to worry about public sector expanding its role, but hear me out. Advertising and paid subscriptions aren't enough any more, and our founding fathers did envision a critical role for the press. Is a new, relatively modest public revenue stream needed to sustain a quality news marketplace?

This is the assertion of Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols in their book, The Death and Life of American Journalism. (Close followers of the Seattle media-scape will remember Bob McChesney — today a professor at the University of Illinois — as the founder of The Rocket, a local rock-and-roll magazine.)

I was faced with a difficult choice. Do I present a complex idea about the future of journalism (clearly why I was invited), or do I present the underlying reasons for why a new future for journalism is needed? The latter is not so uplifting. Presenting both the past and future would be virtually impossible. Five minutes is not a lot of time.

Like the Muni League speech, this column began in the first week of my tenure at Crosscut out of a desire to be open and transparent about what it takes to make quality, written journalism work in today’s marketplace. Like the column, I wanted my Muni League talk to bring people along on this rough and bumpy rode called journalism sustainability.

Figuring out a sustainable business model that will support journalism is the subject of much academic and news media speculation.

Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab recently reported on a new book that explores sustainable business models for journalism. The report concluded that “across the world, money to support journalism startups comes from a variety of sources. An analysis of 69 journalism startups in 10 countries finds no Holy Grail, but a lot of revenue ideas in action.”

Around the same time, blogger Andrew Sulllivan announced that he will break from The Newsweek Daily Beast Company to sell his own brand of journalism directly to readers. The reaction is that direct-to-consumers is the new new thing. A declaration of independence.

"If this model works,” wrote Sullivan, “we'll have proof of principle that a small group of writers and editors can be paid directly by readers, and that an independent site, if tended to diligently can grow an audience large enough to sustain it indefinitely."

And so this is what it’s come to. Journalists hanging out their shingles to survive (and maybe thrive). “My journalism: $19.99 a year.”

Imagine Upton Sinclair, Linda Greenhouse, Woodward and Bernstein, Walter Lippmann and Hedrick Smith leaving their venerable writing posts and asking readers to keep them afloat. Not long ago the civic-minded among us would have laughed, cried or protested.

All I can say is welcome to the party. Crosscut and other nonprofit online news organizations have been working to raise money from readers for some time with varying degrees of success.

My goal at the Municipal League was simply to paint a clear picture of the decline of quality print (written) journalism in our region – the same economic realities that led to Sullivan’s so-called declaration of independence – and to hint at the idea that public funding might be necessary to the future of journalism, a way to augment the other revenue streams.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Feb 13, 8:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Expanding public funding for journalism in this country is such a tough sell, especially in today's environment and yet, I suspect without doing so we are increasingly at risk of completely losing the fourth leg of republic's chair. The check and balance of the press, however poorly implemented and with all its entrenched institutional dysfunction, is still important if no longer relevant to the great majority.

The cynic in me wants to agree with David Simon.

"One of the sad things about contemporary journalism is that it actually matters very little. The world now is almost inured to the power of journalism. The best journalism would manage to outrage people. And people are less and less inclined to outrage. I've become increasingly cynical about the ability of daily journalism to affect any kind of meaningful change. I was pretty dubious about it when I was a journalist, but now I think it's remarkably ineffectual."

This is the elephant in the room.

While quality journalism, especially the laser light of investigation shined in dark corners, has always been something of an afterthought between the advertisements for brassieres and pork butt, it is nearly so utterly lost now as to render the rest of the medium inconsequential. Nearly but not completely.

And worse, do people care? Will enough people care? Can you sustain a business model by supplying not what most people want to hear but what they need to know? That was a better option when news was delivered en masse. I would argue that most people, berated as they are by breathless and vapid servings of disaster and horror meant not to enlighten but to entertain, just do not want to know anymore or worse, are as cynical as I am, expectant of the absurdity, and would rather shrug their shoulders and live their lives. Perhaps this has always been the case and civic responsibility is left to the minority of those who read beyond the obits and Taylor Swift.

In the fractured marketplace of increasingly genre-specific user-tailored content, is the minority then sufficient to provide a living wage to those who would do their legwork?

But wait, haven't we democratized the press now? Have we not slipped information free of its capitalistic corporate bonds? Shouldn't we be awash in quality citizen-generated content? Then why does it all so, so ... suck? Because information is cheap, never cheaper, while knowledge and craft and experience is expensive. Good journalism is not a weekend warrior hobby. And since those days of media profitability seem to be coming to a close, and with it the small percentage that was thrown to true quality journalism, from the beat to the months-long windmill tilt, then from whence does the funding come?

You may be right. Expanded public funding. But the cynic in me says that in a country so heavily steeped in marketplace Darwinism and John Wayne self reliance, reeling as it is from deficits and a majority mindset obstinately hell bent on voting against its own self interest, it ain't never gonna happen.

I hope I am wrong. Thank you for not being as cynical as I. I'll still give to Crosscut as my hedge fund for hope.

tom_hyde

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