Another year, another depressing “State of the News Media” report from the Pew Research Center. This year’s version is almost all numbers, and pretty much all of them are bad. In the crucial category of newspapers, where the lion’s share of reliable reporting is done (before it’s cannibalized by other media), circulation is down around 3 percent from last year’s terrible figures. Ad revenue, down 4 percent, is now less than half what it was just 10 years ago. And if you think these losses can be made up by digital revenue, well, think again. The rise in (cheap) digital revenue doesn’t begin to cover the loss in (expensive) print revenue, especially as ad buyers are fleeing to more specialized social-media platforms.
For magazines, the numbers tell an even more depressing story. Overall circulation fell for the seventh year in a row, with newsstand sales plummeting by an incredible 14 percent. While readers may be multiplying on the web, they are not paying for the product or even clicking on many of the ads—at least not in numbers sufficient to stem the bleeding.
You can find glimmers of sunshine if you really look. Popular websites like Vice News and BuzzFeed are doing some good long-form investigative work, though both appear to have funny ideas about how to protect the integrity of their journalism from the profit motives of their owners. The Huffington Post and Politico also bury some solid work inside their miasma of side-boob shots (in the former case) and gossip-driven political trivia (in the latter case, but also sometimes in the former). But these are exceptions within exceptions.
The most important exception by far is The New York Times, whose impressive investigations—like those into the nail-salon industry and, even more consequently, the scandalous reality of Rikers Island—not only inform readers but also pressure policy-makers to remedy problems that would otherwise go ignored. (This happened in both of the above cases.)
What drives traffic on most “news” websites is not journalism but a combination of snark and celebrity clickbait. Much of it is churned out in soul-destroying content factories manned by inexperienced—and therefore inexpensive—young people without the time or incentive to dig deeply into anything.
The deficit is particularly acute where it matters most: in the kind of expensive, far-flung reporting that is either dangerous to the lives of those doing the work or harmful to the bottom lines of the publications paying for it. The idea that readers will pay the actual cost of meaningful journalism has never been sustainable in the United States and has brought down nearly every entity that has tried to depend on it—at least since the demise of Izzy Stone’s one-man operation.
Nothing can replace what is being lost. But if we want the kind of deeply researched, reliable journalism that keeps democracies functioning and prevents people from being tortured, killed, poisoned, and otherwise exploited without consequence, we are going to have to look to nontraditional sources of reporting.
Philanthropically supported organizations like ProPublica, which specializes in investigative journalism, and the Marshall Project, which focuses on criminal justice, do first-rate work. But it’s hard to know how sustainable they will be without their original donors. And given the congenital caution of most foundation-based funders, it’s not surprising that few, if any, have proved willing to step into the breach where the profit model has failed.
Because publicity can save both lives and freedom, the NGO Human Rights Watch has been among the most proactive of organizations to try to fill the gaps. With an annual budget of approximately $80 million, the organization employs a staff of roughly 400 people working in 60 locations across the globe. Its staff, devoted to uncovering and publicizing conditions leading to human-rights abuses, dwarfs that devoted to foreign reporting in any news organization. And while HRW’s publications do not pretend to “objectivity”—it is, after all, an advocacy organization—its standards are at least as high as those on a foreign desk, and its researchers no less intrepid than war correspondents.
In the past, HRW has largely relied on journalists to bring its findings to a larger audience. But as Carroll Bogert, deputy executive director for external relations, told the Times’s Celestine Bohlen, “We do feel that as journalism has ebbed, we have a responsibility to flow.” The “flow” includes not only the traditional reports and op-eds, but also a Twitter feed with over 1.8 million followers, a YouTube channel with 13 million views, a “Webby”-winning website, two Peabody awards, and, as of summer 2014, a fancy magazine called Human. Issue one was devoted to in-depth reporting on the complex (and deeply undercovered) conflict in the Central African Republic. The just-published second issue, designed by magazine legends Walter Bernard and Milton Glaser, is made up of stories about the grantees of HRW’s Hellman-Hammett program, established in 1990 and funded by a bequest from Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. (Intended as support for writers in financial and political trouble, the grants also offer protection in the form of publicity and have been expanded to include musicians, cartoonists, bloggers, and other contributors to social media.)
The fantastic resources commanded by HRW—thanks in significant measure to a $100 million challenge grant from liberal billionaire George Soros—make it an awfully ambitious model for other NGOs to emulate. But its success so far points to a strange absence in our debates about the myriad crises that journalism faces. As we debate whether people working at home in their pajamas constitute “real journalists,” it would make a great deal of sense to embrace the efforts of people who actually enjoy some expertise in the topics on which they report. Sure, NGO researchers are “biased.” So are most journalists. And we need the information that both of them can provide today more than ever.