New Media, Old Problem

How will the public interest survive the Internet Age?

In a December 2010 story for National Geographic Daily News, Project Word writer Ruxandra Guidi, pictured here, reported an irony of the climate-change era: rising Caribbean seas and intense storms have threatened island-dwelling Kuna peoples, below, but a World Bank-supported climate mitigation plan has jeopardized their plans to relocate. Photos by Roberto (“Bear”) Guerra.

How can Project Word and its allies maintain and strengthen original reporting and media diversity in these economically challenging times? This was the central question of a recent Project Word benefit event at the Pulitzer Word room at the Columbia University School of Journalism.

We didn’t ask, “How will the media survive economically”? Instead we asked “how will the public interest survive economically?” They’re not the same thing. We put it this way: “In a world where aggregated content and new devices lure audiences and advertisers, how will substantial, diverse, expensive public-interest reporting survive?”

Attention spans are shortening and advertisers can use precise page-hit metrics to direct content (“we’ll fund any story as long as it profiles celebrities”). At the same time, savvy “aggregators”—entitites that post other people’s work—can lure audiences away from the very outlets whose original reporting they rely on. Those original sources are losing revenue, and their editorial resources are collapsing. That spells disaster—at least for public general-interest reporting.

Of course, economic opportunities abound. The Huffington Post just sold for $300 million. Sophisticated Internet companies like Yahoo and Google can reposition themselves as profitable media companies. And the use of technology and social media can help conventional or “legacy” news outlets become profitable once again. But it’s not clear that these developments necessarily assure the survival of public-interest journalism.

Indeed, new media companies like Gawker, Huffington Post, and Newsreel can profit exactly because they tend to aggregate other people’s work, rely on cheap opinion instead of expensive reporting, and do not really fund investigative reporting—all the while diverting audiences from legacy media that do (or did).

Legacy media
For its part, the conventional well-known “legacy” media are trying to catch up. They are integrating for-pay web content, negotiating digital devices, and enlisting bloggers and social media. But even if those routes succeed, the success would not necessarily translate to replenished newsrooms, bureaus, investigative budgets, or incentives to pursue the difficult stories. If Gawker’s sophisticated story rankings are taken as the Holy Grail, advertisers would pressure a publication like the New York Times simply to follow the page-hits, shares, and references—to stories like “Condoms with teeth” and “Mad men: out of focus groups.”

Of course, the Times would not so easily abandon its role as a public-trust institution. But it’s not a question of whether the “media” will thrive as an industry. It’s a question of whether independent reporting will thrive as a public good. A democracy will always need well-trained, -supported, and -edited reporters whose distinct backgrounds impel them to take on a special mission: seek what others won’t even think to look for; have the tenacity, skills, and independence to find it and report it well.

In the strictest sense, such work is not usually cost-effective, marketable, or popular. Nor does it necessarily carry the utopian glamour of high-tech multi-nodal communications technology. Its tasks are simple: to look beyond conventional corridors of power, pursue the highest-yielding questions or hunches or leads, find the most important sources or documents, convey the most revealing voices, and tell the untold stories in the public interest. This is plain old journalism— but the formula for maintaining it is disappearing with every newsroom layoff, and nothing has yet taken its place. Not even the hippest, smartest Silicon Valley start-up has managed to adequately answer the question—what will happen to complex investigative and narrative reporting?

The principle challenges
At the recent Project Word benefit event, a seasoned panel took up the question. Political humorist Bill Shein did a marvelous job illustrating the principal challenges. And the panel responded with substantial, thoughtful, and effective ways that practitioners are meeting them—as a special highlight, Alfredo Corchado talked about his work at the Mexico City bureau of the Dallas Morning News, braving the border wars as the sole remaining staffer. Because staffers like Corchado are fewer and farther between, freelancers have had to take up the slack, although they too are fighting for editors, space, and funding.

This is largely where Project Word has come in. Two Project Word reporters, Teo Ballvé and Maureen Nandini Mitra, described how the Project has facilitated their work. By leveraging philanthropy, Project Word allows auxiliary editors (like Project director Laird Townsend) the time and resources to help break stories like Ballvé’s—in this case, exposing USAID’s connection to palm oil production on land stolen from Colombia campesinos. Without Project Word’s editorial support, Ballvé’s story could not have made the Nation’s pages. And editors at publications like the Boston Globe could not have run a range of other pieces, including several well-regarded reports on a controversial World Bank climate-mitigation program. If all goes as planned, Mitra’s piece on Borneo will be the next in that series.

Along with Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter Ian Shearn, Texas Monthly correspondent Cecilia Balli described the challenges of independent freelancing, and the benefit that philanthropic support brings—especially in the story-proposal phase where Project Word focuses. Balli also described the subtle cultural and journalistic obstacles she’s fought to overcome, obstacles that Project Word has helped writers like Ballvé negotiate successfully. At the event, Project Word vowed to help Balli succeed next at The New Yorker, Atlantic, or another magazine of her choice—all to the public’s benefit.

For their part, panelists Brant Houston of the Investigative News Network and Ricardo Sandoval of the Center for Public Integrity described the recent successes of their own grant-supported journalism, with its unprecedented twist—collaboration. In response to shrinking newsrooms, their nonprofits have practiced enhanced communication and cooperation to yield a range of investigative coups on crucial topics, from illegal catches of bluefin tuna to sexual assaults on campuses. All these stories, including Project Word’s pieces, would not have reached mainstream media audiences without strong editorial managers like Townsend, Sandoval, Houston, firmly supported by grants and donations. This support only partially compensates for gutted budgets and empty newsrooms, but it keeps the scrappy spirit of investigative reporting alive.

New terrain
In pushing into this terrain, the panelists were on the frontlines of a pronounced shift: commercial newsgathering operations are increasingly strengthened by nonprofit media centers. The panelists also pointed out the challenges of this terrain—from organizing collaborations of independent journalists across cultures and borders, to navigating potential funding conflicts of grant-funded reporting, and defending independence and credibility.

But perhaps the liveliest dialogue of the night concerned the role of legacy media. How do we relate to these newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets that have long served as arbiters of journalism? Will they survive? A terrific new documentary, “Front Page: Inside the New York Times,” poses the same question from behind the veil. But on May 24th, the panelists asked it from the outside—what’s the most helpful role of independent grant-supported reporters and editors like those on the panel?

Does Project Word continue to serve the Boston Globe and its ilk, while the new Web 2.0 models sort themselves out? Or do we dismiss the legacy media as dinosaurs—or “dying dogs,” as one panelist put it. Do we steer their disappearing audiences to our own media websites, as the aggregators do to theirs?

The principal goal of Project Word is to promote gutsy, honest, first-rate reporting in the public interest, a goal that any number of outlets can help us accomplish. Even as the new landscape promises other sources of good journalism, the Boston Globe has a track record. Its editors still want to go beyond empty opinion and digested press releases. They still want to publish writers whose instincts, skills, knowledge, and diverse backgrounds—ethnic, linguistic, geographic—help them uncover stories others couldn’t. They still uphold standards of fairness, accuracy, and impartiality. By supplying legacy media with good stories, Project Word helps those outlets move toward the fullest media diversity, retaining audiences and revenue. But to what extent and in what circumstances will support of these legacy media serve public-interest journalism? How else should Project Word pursue its goals? Where best to direct our resources?

The question is not likely to go away in coming years, or become less relevant. So whether you attended the event or missed it, we welcome your thoughts:

And please consider lending your support to Project Word any way you can, including making a donation. You are now a facilitator of a new newsroom, carrying on an indispensable tradition.

To donate by mail, please make the check out to The Center for Investigative Reporting, put “Project Word” in the memo line, and send to:

Director of Finance & Administration
Center for Investigative Reporting
2130 Center Street, Suite 103
Berkeley, CA 94704

Thank you!

Mon, 09/05/2011 - 8:18pm