There’s no doubt that news in America is in trouble. Of the 60,000 print journalists employed throughout the nation in 2001, at least 10,000 have lost their jobs, and last year alone newspaper circulation dropped by a precipitous 7 percent. Internet, network and cable news employ a dwindling population of reporters, not nearly enough to cover a country of 300 million people, much less keep up with events around the world. It is no longer safe to assume, as the authors of the Constitution did, that free-flowing news and information will always be available to America’s voters.
It’s time for the public discussion to focus less on what has caused this swiftly escalating crisis–the mass migration of readers to the Internet and the effects of the economic meltdown feature in most explanations–and start talking seriously about solutions. Saving journalism might seem like an entirely new problem, but it’s really just another version of one that Americans have solved many times before: how do we keep a vital public institution safe from the ups and downs of the economy? Private philanthropy and government support are the two best answers we have to this question.
One of the best-known examples of philanthropy’s response to the news crisis is ProPublica (propublica.org), which was founded in 2007 by editor in chief Paul Steiger with retired banking tycoons Herbert and Marion Sandler. The group, which relies mainly on grants from the Sandlers to stay in operation, maintains a staff of thirty-five reporters and editors, who specialize in hard-hitting investigative journalism with a long memory, the kind that cash-strapped commercial media have always been wary of supporting. With stories on Hurricane Katrina and Guantánamo already published in places like the New York Times, the Washington Post and The Nation [see A.C. Thompson, “Katrina’s Hidden Race War,” January 5], the group exemplifies how valuable the nonprofit news sector can be.
The group’s finances and the scope of its operations, however, are a perfect example of why philanthropy can never be the sole answer to America’s news crisis. ProPublica’s annual budget of $10 million is exceptional by philanthropic standards, but it is still less than a single newspaper, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, was losing per year before its owners shut it down. An army of ProPublicas is needed before America can replace the capacity for good journalism it has already lost.
That said, the private, not-for-profit news sector is worth paying attention to. Some of the new organizations cropping up might be models for others, if they’re successful. Two representative examples are the Investigative Network (currently a for-profit, with plans to become a hybrid not-for-profit and for-profit entity) and the Under-Told Stories Project. Founded to fill a void in coverage of the multibillion-dollar Texas Statehouse budget, the Investigative Network (pressforthepeople.com) aims to use the revenue it gets from selling subscriptions to niche information streams to fund investigative journalism in the general public interest. The group’s founder, investigative reporter Paul Adrian, hopes that funding will also come from story syndication and philanthropy. Groups with such a diverse mix of support as part of their initial business plans are likely to become more common.