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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