The Public Publisher: Solving our media emergency

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.

This past week a group in Philadelphia launched an ad campaign to focus attention on the need to save local newspapers. 

"Ain't no room for cowards in journalism at this moment in time," said New York Times sports editor Joe Sexton this month. Sexton was laid off and heading to ProPublica, the nonprofit online investigative news outlet.

The history that led to Sexton's lament was the subject of my Municipal League talk. As if my task wasn’t hard enough, I began my five-minute talk by reaching back 230 years.

Thomas Jefferson said that if he had to choose between a government with no press or a press with no government he would surely choose the latter. Our problem is that we are in jeopardy of the former. 

I attempted through my series of slides to show the audience a clear picture of the critical, perhaps even fatal, state of American journalism. Unless you are watching the business side of the news media carefully, the decline could be easy to miss. After all, for most Americans their daily paper still arrives at the end of the driveway and they can watch cable news. But look closer and the erosion of quality, competitive written news and analysis is severe.

Ernest Hemingway once was asked how he had gone broke. "Gradually," he replied, "and then suddenly.” That’s where media is.

To understand and perhaps even appreciate the idea of public support for public media, I suggested to the audience that we agree on a few things right up front:

  1. An independent, competitive news media – what our founding fathers called a free press – is essential for our democracy to work.
  2. Quality, independent news reporting is very much at risk. The business model is failing.
  3. Online news is now the most popular source of local news for Americans; increasingly, people are reading that news on mobile devices.

The decline of American journalism is such a threat to our democracy that the U.S. Senate several years ago held a hearing on how to save journalism.

Arianna Huffington testified that, “the discussion needs to move from how do we save newspapers, to how do we save and strengthen journalism, however it is delivered?"

David Simon, former journalist and creator of The Wire, also rang the alarm bells. “High-end journalism is dying in America," said Simon. "And unless a new economic model is achieved, it will not be reborn on the Web or anywhere else.”

Now to be clear, I am not talking about news commentaries on Fox and CNN. I am talking about quality, investigative news reporting that shines a bright light on the issues of our time.

My focus is public media, 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations such as Crosscut, NPR and PBS that are supported by public, tax deductible contributions. PBS and NPR receive some public (or government) funding. Crosscut and other online news sites don't.

Sadly, we are watching a collapse in written news: The New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Seattle PI, Newsweek and others have shrunk or disappeared — and there are more such stories to come.

One recent outcome of this revenue decline: the 2012 election saw less press coverage than 2008. In 2008, nearly 40 percent of the news hole was devoted to coverage of the presidential election. In 2012, it was just under 20 percent. That same pattern holds true in Seattle.

And yet local news is the one bright spot in the pubic trust.

When newspapers fail, the impact on civic engagement can be devastating. For example, voter turnout in Cincinnati appears to have decreased after the Cincinnati Post closed.

Other countries believe the price of losing independent news voices is too high. As a result, the public helps fund public media.

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Our democracy was founded on the idea of a strong, independent press. We the people have a duty to preserve and protect an independent, competitive news marketplace. The question is how?

New forms of journalism like Crosscut and the Texas Tribune rely on new funding streams that include membership, events, sponsorship and contributions from philanthropic foundations and other donors.

On the bright side, we online news organizations are often able to devote half or more of our budget directly to editorial, the expense category for writing and editing.

The bold idea, therefore, is this: local and state government should find an appropriate, market-based approach to supporting quality, public journalism. Such support would help (not fully, just partially) to fund public, noncommercial journalism like NPR, PBS, InvestigateWest, Crosscut, Grist and other quality news organizations.

I touched on three possible public funding approaches, but there may be more.

  1. Consumer news voucher — McChesney, in his book, argues for a publicly-funded voucher that would enable families to pay a subscription, pay wall fee or membership toward the public media outlet of their choice.
  2. Innovation fund for journalism — In much the same way that the Life Sciences Discovery Fund in Washington state uses public and private dollars to foster community growth and improve well being, so too could a Public Media "discovery" or "innovation" fund help to advance public media. 
  3. Journalism education, job development and training — Journalism training prepares students for a variety of careers. Increasingly, newsroom labs are used by high schools and post-secondary school institutions to prepare students. Public media organizations, if funded, could advance their own missions while also advancing educational goals.

Design principles must guide this kind of public investment. Principles such as: 

•      The idea is public funding, not government control.

•      Public media only, not commercial media.

•      Public media would remain independent and nonpartisan.

•      Funds would be raised fairly from those industries benefitting most from consumer demand for news.

A footnote, and an update: Crosscut readership as measured by Internet metrics like unique monthly visitors and page views is up significantly since the summer (though we still have a long way to go). There is a market for quality written journalism. And there are a few of you willing to pay for it. The question is whether our democracy will support independent, quality journalism in sufficient numbers to keep it going.  

Wait, is Daniel Day Lewis available for a movie about Jefferson and the press?

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