Category Archives: Research project

What is journalism, and how to pay for it

Journalism is like a fully loaded hot dog at Fenway Park.

Or at least that’s how one friend and “citizen journalist” described it for a paper I wrote in late 2007. I  interviewed some new “citizen journalists,” surveyed the history of the business of journalism and looked at some new experiments in paying for journalism.

Now, two years later, we’re still asking the same questions: What is a journalist? What is journalism? How do we pay for it?

Instead of referring folks to a PDF, herewith is the analysis section of that paper. It’s still relevant, and it’s interesting to see where progress has been made, and where we’re still struggling.


“Something is happening out there, and if we don’t understand it, it’s not just the newspaper business that is in peril.”
Bill Keller, editor of The New York Times, in the Hugo Young lecture in London in late November 2007.

What is the best way for societies to pay for their journalism?
And what is journalism anyway?
Here are a few juicy words from John McBride, who produces the “Under the Water Tower” blog for a small Charlotte neighborhood.
He’s also a co-worker at The Charlotte Observer focused on technology development for newspapers. He’s also a father and husband of a teacher:

“I would make a distinction between journalism and community or other information. Journalism is information with extra value. Kind of like a hot dog with sauerkraut and spicy mustard at Fenway Park on a warm summer night instead of just a hot dog. The first one isn’t by definition better, but it allows for a more fulfilling experience.
“Anybody can recite information about what the city council did last night. A journalist will add value to that information, enriching it with context and perspective. But there’s another requirement to journalism.
“Plenty of people online enrich information with context and perspective. Too many of them don’t go to the council meetings and don’t talk to council members and don’t talk to city policy stakeholders. You have to be a player to do journalism. Not that distant observers can’t add context and perspective. But if all you have is distant observers your diet will be just a hot dog.
“In a perfect world the practice of journalism would be protected from corrupting influences by being placed in a trust of some kind. I don’t know the details or how to get there, but something like the arrangement the St. Petersburg Times publishes under.
“Capitalism is a wonderfully efficient economic system. But like teaching children, the practice of journalism isn’t necessarily improved by the capitalist model. I’d like to see journalism (and public education) protected from bottom-line mentality somehow.”

These days, consumers don’t rely solely on traditional media monopolies for information, and that’s a good development. But some of the new alternative voices bubbling up from “citizen journalists” lack traditional journalism training and also face the same funding questions that traditional media face.
Many sources are experimenting with new methods of crunching data and funding their reporting. The data is ubiquitous; adding analysis and meaning to that data is the hard part. Actual old-fashioned feet-on-the-street work and interviews with hard questions for sources seem to be rare, while easy opinion flourishes from numerous sources online.
Owning a printing press is no longer an obstacle. Finding the time and having the guts and experience and intellect to ask hard questions is.

From (David) Boraks, the local news blogger at Davidson News:

“One final thought: The operational expenses side of the equation here is very simple. It costs practically nothing to run this site, apart from human capital. My costs for domain names, web hosting, site tracking, possibly eventually an email service will never be more than a hundred dollars a month.  It’s my time and the time of my associates that is the big expense.
How long we do this is entirely depending on how energized or weary we become about it.”

Here are some recommendations, for organizations and individuals:
1.  Look for partners and multiple sources of information. New media organizations can learn from the traditional news organizations, finding out more about reporting and hard questions, in exchange perhaps for the technical tools that the new groups are so good at developing. Perhaps traditional media can exchange information or tools with newcomers, instead of spending too much time trying to catch up on the technical side. And traditional journalists should find more ways to pass on the long-term values of truth, fairness and balance to organizations using new methods of sharing information. Consumers should remember to get information from multiple sources. If one only relied on email bulletins from Outside.In from certain neighborhoods, the crime coverage would overwhelm other news and skew one’s perspective on reality. One prolific source feeding an aggregator can skew the headlines. Be aware of that and holistically examine information from providers.
2.  Carefully examine the background and funding of partners and sources of news. Journalism has always had to worry about losing credibility through guilt by association, whether it comes from a newspaper owner or a blogging individual or a nonprofit foundation. Beware conflicts of interest, even if it’s just making news judgments about a story from which you can later benefit
3.  Avoid partnering or gleaning all your information from sources that seem to have a political stance. Or balance them with other partners or sources that lean the other way.
4.  Find multiple methods of funding. Other businesses from freelancers to large companies know the axiom that one main income source weakens one’s independence and sustainability. It’s past time that traditional journalism
organizations learn that lesson and actively, consistently broaden their income
base beyond advertising.
5.  Consider broader sources for information and encouragement of the people that produce it. The federal New Deal model during and after the Depression is inspiring for the history it recorded and the creativity it harnessed. Find a way to encourage that kind of explosion of creativity now, everywhere, without making it too dependent on one particular political party, government entity or new-media business. Perhaps fund young people studying abroad more deeply and pay them for their writing and photography.
6.  Keep a close eye on the new experiments, to find out what works, what doesn’t work and where individuals’ money – and taxes – should go.
7. Remember that quality counts, and reward it. From Picard: “Protestations of journalistic purity and piety will produce few results unless they are accompanied by true commitment to producing quality material that serves more important interests than titillation, voyeurism and sales.”

Paying for news

Nontraditional information sources are challenging the value of journalism from traditional newspaper companies, and society as a whole is pointing to the Internet and changing technologies for killing an industry.
With the threat of new media, traditional journalists have spent many words urging new ideas about how traditional journalism companies can make money in a new era. Most newspaper executives continue to say they can do more with less.
Amid the buzz, it’s time to ask a different question. Instead of journalism organizations asking how they can fund their journalism, we need to ask how societies should pay for journalism. That question allows broader analysis and perhaps room for new ideas.
For a class paper, I surveyed recent history of the newspaper business and reviewed experiments in information gathering and sharing on the Internet. A pdf of the paper is linked at the end of this post.
Sources included journalism books: Philip Meyer’s “The Vanishing Newspaper,” Robert G. Picard’s “Commercialism and Newspaper Quality” in the Newspaper Research Journal and the websites of new experiments, from large nonprofits to neighborhood blogs. I asked some neighborhood volunteers for their ideas about how society should pay for journalism.
The results give us reason to hope. Alternatives exist to information solely dependent upon retail advertisers. And it’s clear, as it always was, that society should judge the quality of journalism by paying close attention to the information and money sources.
Philip Meyer in “The Vanishing Newspaper” tried to link quality of journalism with business success. He concluded he could not pinpoint a direct connection, but he was hopeful that varied experimentation would allow truth and fairness to emerge.
“Natural selection will do the job. Maybe we can help it along,” he said.
With a close eye, maybe we can.
Paying for news