I was recently interviewed by a television station doing a feature on Seattle news media one year after Seattle's second daily, the P-I, shut down its print edition. Big loss, I said, worrying that the town would settle for "the new normal" of one single, much-diminished daily and a scattering of websites. I recalled that when KING Broadcasting's glory days ended, it wasn't that someone else came along to pick up the fallen standard of local television news and documentaries. We just learned to get along with that sirens-and-celebrities format of local TV news. Will that happen across the board?
Crosscut, for all its faults and modest budget, is one of the country's most significant efforts to reverse this decline. Our key strategy is to do it as a public medium, supported by annual memberships and foundations, plus some advertising and sponsorships. As with public broadcast (though without their government support and national programming), we depend on donations from those of our readers who like us enough and think it important enough to become annual members. Typically in public broadcast, that means about 10 percent of the audience care enough to send in a contribution, enabling the other 90 percent a free ride. I hope you'll join the Crosscut Public Media list of supporters by donating today. We urgently need your support in order to continue. And as a member you'll be invited to member-only parties and forums. It's fun, worthwhile, and enjoyable company.
Public support is a key differentiating factor. On the Web, commercial pressures drive sites into two directions that distort news judgment. One is to become a commodity, getting the largest number of clicks, in order to attract advertisers who want very large numbers of readers. That's the strategy of seattlepi.com and most of the famous national news sites. That means lots of celebrities, crime stories, cheesecake, and "breaking news" that rockets around the other sites. It's fast-food journalism. The other commercial pressure is to aim for a tight niche, whether that's an "anger community" or a narrow consumer interest, so that advertisers have no "waste" readership.
As an editor, these two strategies would severely constrain the menu of stories I could assign or post. Instead, we hope to put up stories in the public interest, the kinds of things people need to know, that provide context and deeper understanding, that pull people out of their comfort zones or fast-food habits. There's that word "public," and it implies public support to make it work. That's why public radio is different and more serious than news on commercial radio. That's why the BBC is so good. And non-profit status also translates into local ownership and control. There's no way Crosscut could be fattened up for a sale to a national chain.
I'll be writing more about these issues and how Crosscut fits into the new landscape in the coming days, during our March membership drive. I hope you find this of interest. And I urge you to join the cause, help make us rise above the many adverse trends in American local journalism. Get involved. Tell others about Crosscut. And please send us your donation and support.