How to Save the News | The Nation


How to Save the News

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William F. Baker
William F. Baker, president emeritus of WNET, the country's largest PBS station, is Bernard L. Schwartz Professor and...

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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.

This article initially characterized The Investigative Network as a private, not-for-profit group. The article has been corrected to reflect the fact that the organization is a for-profit that intends to become a hybrid for-profit and not-for-profit.

Evan Leatherwood, a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York, helped research and write this article.

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.

The Under-Told Stories Project (undertoldstories.org) is devoted to increasing public awareness of underreported international topics. The group is funded partly by sale of its stories, most of which end up on public television and radio, and partly by its institutional partner, Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. Organizations that get some support from endowed nonmedia institutions might also become more common.

It's also worth noting that in an environment of diminishing opportunities for young journalists, the Under-Told Stories Project arranges internships. Ensuring that good reporting will be around in the long term is just as important as preserving what we have now, and the private, nonprofit media sector would do well to pursue it more vigorously. (Full disclosure: I am an unpaid adviser to both the Under-Told Stories Project and the Investigative Network.)

Because such fledgling enterprises are potentially so valuable to the health of our media, they should be loudly and publicly encouraged at this stage, even though there will never be enough of them to solve the news crisis on their own. At Harvard's Hauser Center, I've launched a database of nonprofit news efforts (hausercenter.harvard.edu/medialist). Many of the listed organizations are in the early stages of development, and now is the time when publicity and donations can make a decisive difference. If you're looking for somewhere to donate, or if you know of a group that we haven't found yet, I urge you to get in touch. But for a nation in the midst of a crippling news crisis, my list is still alarmingly short, and, as a potential replacement for our commercial media, it can never really be long enough.

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