Wednesday, 19 November 2008

NYT's media correspondent tells us all we need to know about what's wrong with newspapers

I think this speaks for itself. I mean, really, this is like GM backing SUVs and being surprised when Toyota and Renault do better.

Filling media gaps, watchdogs spring up online
By Richard Pérez-Peña
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
SAN DIEGO: Over the last two years, some of this city's darkest secrets have been dragged into the light - city officials with conflicts of interest and hidden pay raises, affordable housing that was not affordable, misleading crime statistics.
Investigations ensued. The chiefs of two redevelopment agencies were forced out. One of them faces criminal charges. Yet the main revelations came not from any of San Diego's television and radio stations or its big newspaper, The Union-Tribune, but from a handful of young journalists at a nonprofit Web site run out of a converted military base far from the downtown - a site that did not exist four years ago.
As newspapers in the United States - and much of the western world - shrink and shed staff, and broadcast news outlets sink in the ratings, a new kind of Web-based news operation has arisen in several cities, taking up some of the slack and forcing the mainstream media to follow the stories they uncover.
Here, it is, offering a brand of serious, original reporting by professional journalists - the province of the mainstream media, but without the expensive paper and ink. Since it began in 2005, similar operations have cropped up in New Haven, Connecticut; the Twin Cities in Minnesota; Seattle; St. Louis, Missouri; and Chicago. More are on the way.
Their news coverage and hard-digging investigative reporting stand out in an Internet landscape long dominated by partisan commentary, gossip, vitriol and citizen journalism posted by unpaid amateurs.
The fledgling movement has reached a critical mass, its founders think, to form a planned association, angling for national advertising and foundation grants that they could not compete for by themselves. And hardly a week goes by without a call from frustrated journalists around the country seeking advice about starting their own online news outlets.
"Voice is doing really significant work, driving the agenda on redevelopment and some other areas, putting local politicians and businesses on the hot seat," said Dean Nelson, journalism director at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. "I have them come into my classes, and I introduce them as, 'This is the future of journalism."'
That is a subject of hot debate among people who follow the besieged newspaper industry. Publishing online means operating at half the cost of a comparable printed paper, but online advertising is nowhere near robust enough to sustain a newsroom.
And so, financially, VoiceofSanDiego and its peers mimic public broadcasting, not newspapers. They are nonprofit corporations supported by foundations, wealthy donors, audience contributions and a little advertising.
New nonprofits without a specific geographic focus also have sprung up to fill other niches, like ProPublica, devoted to investigative journalism, and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which looks into problems abroad. A similar group, the Center for Investigative Reporting, dates back decades.
But experts question whether a large part of the news business can survive on what is essentially charity, and whether it is wise to lean too heavily on the whims of a few moneyed benefactors.
"These are some of the big questions about the future of the business," said Robert Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Nonprofit news online "has to be explored and experimented with, but it has to overcome the hurdle of proving it can support a big news staff. Even the most well-funded of these sites are a far cry in resources from a city newspaper."
The people who run the local news sites see themselves as one future among many. They have a complex relationship with the mainstream media, whose failings have created an opening for new sources of news, and whose cutbacks have created a surplus of unemployed journalists for them to hire.
"No one here welcomes the decline of newspapers," said Andrew Donohue, one of two executive editors at VoiceofSanDiego. "We can't be the main news source for this city, not for the foreseeable future. We only have 11 people."
Those people are almost all young, some of them refugees from the mainstream media. The executive editors - Donohue, 30, and Scott Lewis, 32 - each had a few years of experience at small papers before abandoning newsprint. So far, their audience is tiny, about 18,000 monthly unique visitors, according to Quantcast, a media measurement service. The biggest of the new nonprofit news sites, MinnPost in the Twin Cities and the St. Louis Beacon, can top 200,000 visitors in a month, but even that is a fraction of the Internet readership for the local newspapers.
VoiceofSanDiego's site looks much like any newspaper's, frequently updated with breaking news and organized around broad topics: government and politics, housing, economics, the environment, schools and science. It has few graphics, but plenty of photography and, through a partnership with a local TV station, some video.
But it is thin - strictly local, selective in coverage and without the wire service articles that plump up most sites.
On a budget of less than $800,000 this year - almost $200,000 more than last year - everyone does double duty. Lewis writes a political column, and Donohue works on investigative articles. But the operation is growing, and Woolley, president and chief executive officer, said he is convinced the nonprofit model has the best chance of survival.
"Information is now a public service as much as it's a commodity," he said. "It should be thought of the same way as education, health care. It's one of the things you need to operate a civil society, and the market isn't doing it very well."


"Books about cosmopolitan urbanites discovering the joys of country life are two a penny, but this one is worth a second glance. Walthew's vivid description of the moral stress induced by his job as a high-flying executive with the International Herald Tribune newspaper is worth the cover price alone…. Highly recommended."
The Oxford Times
Ian Walthew

'I read
A Place in My Country with absolute unalloyed delight. A glorious book.'
Jeremy Irons (actor)

‘Ian Walthew was a newspaper executive with a career that took him round the world, who one day did a mad thing. He saw a for-sale sign on a cottage in the Cotswolds, bought it, resigned and moved in. For the first few weeks he just lay on the grass in a daze. Then he started talking to his neighbours and digging into the rich history of this beautiful part of England. Out of his inquiries grew this affecting and inspiring memoir.What sets it apart from others of its ilk is the author’s enviable immunity to cliché and his determination to love his homeland better than he used to.
His elegiac account of relearning how to be an Englishman should be required reading for anyone who claims to know or love this country. Financial Times
Ian Walthew

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