Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A look at the future of journalism

By Micki Carter
Managing Editor, Zirana.com

I traveled back in time last week to get a close look at the future of journalism.

The occasion was the centennial of the University of Missouri School of Journalism where I picked up my BJ a long time ago.

The three-day event was packed with forums and panels on the current state of journalism — threatened, at best — and the focus was on how to preserve good, old-fashioned watch-dog reporting in a day when no one wants to pay for it.

And just in time, too. I picked up a Sunday paper on the way home only to discover that Doonesbury’s Rick, an icon of investigative reporting, is about to be sacked now that his paper can no longer afford to pay for “someone of his calibre.” When newspaper penny-pinching makes the funny pages, it’s real.

Since I’m now knee-deep in the New Media myself these days, I hurried off to the panel on New Models in Journalism in an Internet Age on Thursday and learned that great journalism is still alive and well — and even well-funded — if you’re willing to turn yourself into a non-profit on the Web.

Case in point is Propublica.org. Paul Steiger, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, was approached by San Francisco philanthropists Herb and Marion Sandler who are quietly putting their Golden West Savings fortune to work to support some very big ideas. The Sandlers wanted to create and support a non-profit that would do the kind of reporting that would “out” the Enrons of the world.

Propublica, under the strong hand of Steiger and 10-15 other hand-picked reporters, is out in search of abuse of power. And when they find it, they offer the stories free to outlets such as 60 Minutes and the Washington Post. The Sandlers have promised $10 million a year for the foreseeable future to make it happen.

STLBeacon.org has adopted a public television approach to journalism. Margaret Wolf Freivogel, formerly of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, saw the writing on the newsroom wall and launched the regional media Web site. It has 15 full and parttime journalists and a host of freelancers who provide the news content.

“Traditional journalists still provide the diet most online organizations chew on,” Sawyer said. “We feel like TV in the early ‘50s. We’re still finding our financial underpinnings.”

STLBeacon is selling memberships and sponsorships like public TV and radio as a source of financing. No word yet on Pledge Breaks in the New Media.

Perhaps Joel Kramer of MinnPost.com is the most realistic about the nonprofit web news model. His site is considered a veteran organization just 10 months after it opened its portal. A former publisher, he started with $250,000 from the Knight Foundation and drafted a sustainable business model that would, after four years, no longer be dependent on foundation money.

“We thought we could get 75 percent advertising and corporate sponsors and 25 percent individual donors,” Kramer said. “Now we believe 50-50 is more realistic. We plan to use the public TV model and ‘guilt’ people into donating.”

Kramer added that non-profit journalism has to keep its eye on the prize — stories that have an impact on society — and not just traffic. MinnPost’s brochure broadcasts “No Britney, no Paris, no Lindsay.”

“Volume drives traffic, but that’s not what donors are looking for,” Kramer said.

In the closing roundtable Missouri J-School alum Amy McCombs, former general manager of KRON-TV in San Francisco, noted that a recent Pew Research study shows that the most trafficked sites on the web are the traditional news media sites like the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.

“So we know that people do value traditional news gathering” but we have to find a way to pay for it.

As for the idea that we can depend on user-generated content to ferret out the truth, David Dorman of Motorola said, “Every time I hear the phrase ‘citizen journalist,’ I equate it with ‘amateur physician’ and it scares the crap out of me.”

But they work for free.

Micki Carter is managing editor of Zirana.com and was previously editor of the San Mateo Times. She is also a past president of the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club.

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