Friday, October 2, 2009

Reporters Trapped Inside a Burning Business Model

Classic comic illustration of a woman jumping out of a burning building, saying When I went to journalism school, this wasn't what they meant by 'after the jump'!

Clay Shirky recently did a small-scale content analysis of the Columbia, Missouri, Daily Tribune, literally weighing how much of the paper was news, ads or other (sports, opinion, crosswords, etc.). He also quanitifed how much of it was created by the paper's staff, as opposed to acquired from another source (the Associated Press, comics syndicates, and so on). According to Shirky, the Tribune is "a classic metro daily and pretty good paper for a town of 100,000."

His results: One third of the paper was news. One third was locally created. And less than one-sixth of the content was news created by the paper's staff.

He also found out there are only six reporters creating all of the local news at the paper. And this is at a good paper in a competitive market (Columbia is home to the University of Missouri's acclaimed journalism school and its daily paper). In contrast, the Tribune has 11 people covering sports, plus a hefty list of columnists writing advice, cooking tips, and so on. And while those things are clearly not without value, as Shirky says,

it’s not news, and it’s not hard to do, and it’s not hard to replace. No one surveying the changes the internet is bringing to the newspaper business is saying “My God, who will tell me about Big 12 football! Where will I find a recipe for spicy chicken wings!” What matters in the Tribune, and what’s at risk, is Terry Ganey’s work on a state coverup of elevated levels of E. Coli in Ozark lakes, Jonathan Braden on anti-gay protesters from Kansas picketing in Columbia, Jodie Jackson’s reporting on a child molestation case against a local politician.
One idea bandied about for saving the local news function of the daily newspaper is the nonprofit model, which is a reality -- at least for now -- at sites like MinnPost and the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Remembering that the number of people who actually do the local news reporting is relatively small helps to make the nonprofit idea more realistic:
Seen in that light, what’s needed for a non-profit news plan to work isn’t an institutional conversion, it’s a rescue operation. There are a dozen or so reporters and editors in Columbia, Missouri, whose daily and public work is critical to the orderly functioning of that town, and those people are trapped inside a burning business model. With that framing of the problem, the question is how to get them out safely...
Shirky linked his essay to one by Steve Coll in The New Yorker. Coll calls upon billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to cough up the first billion to create an endowment for papers like the Washington Post, so that the reporting staff can be run off the resulting interest in perpetuity. His model is the private university, many of which sit on endowments in the billions of dollars, and which generally shield them from the vagaries of political pressure or the sensibilities of stockholders.

Coll ends with these words: "Warren? Bill? You can secure the First Amendment for a generation at a time of historical transformation in national life, and in the country’s place in the world. If you’ll just put up the first billion, the rest of us promise to get busy helping to raise the rest."

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