Hard News by Russell Brown


Paying for what doesn't come free any more

Bernard Hickey gave me a call last week to let me know that Mediawatch had got wind of journalism.org.nz, the public-interest journalism project we'd been discussing and there would be a story on Sunday, one that might mention my name. I was happy for Bernard that he was ready to go public and I'm encouraged by the response.

I wrote recently about the grim tidings for independent media in a the PWC media industry forecast -- basically, advertising revenue has become increasingly disengaged from the support of editorial content, and new digital revenue streams are likely to flow mostly to large-scale businesses such as Trade Me and Facebook.

But there are longer trends too. There was a time when it was viable to make a living doing good work as a freelance journalist. But for about a decade and a half from the early 1990s, the standard rate per word virtually froze at 40 cents. It surged for short periods, but mostly hovered around a level that simply didn't sustain sophisticated journalism and investigative work in particular. A single-interview magazine story was viable, an investigative one was not. Although rates have somewhat improved, especially for "name" journalists, that's still basically the case.

As the squeeze goes on traditional media -- PWC thinks newspaper print advertising revenues will fall 20% -- things will get worse. Newspapers produce copy around the clock now, much of it turned around from wire services and press releases by relatively junior staff, all of it instantly accountable by the click. The papers still employ rare birds like Phil Kitchin, who can work quietly for weeks or months on a story, but the pressure is inexorably to do more with less.

It's not all bad, of course: the radical lowering of the bar to entry in publishing has revived the public space. New Zealand is a better place with No Right Turn keeping everyone honest, and with expert bloggers like Graeme Edgeler and Andrew Geddis writing, and with Scoop pinning the national conversation to the noticeboard every day.

For a time, it appeared that sites like this one could earn the sort of revenue that would justify the effort of doing more and better work in the public interest. I don't think that's the case any more. As things stand, it's a very time-consuming hobby, with undeniable advantages for visibility and reputation -- and the great fulfilment of fostering a community of readers and writers. (Oh, all right -- and the cleansing satisfaction of pointing out when people are Wrong on the Internet.)

As once-great mastheads like the Los Angeles Times have been flushed down the toilet by feckless, acquisitive proprietors, one in particular has stood apart. Irrespective of its politics, The Guardian has done more than any paper to modernise and to conceive of new ways for newspapers to do their work, from its groundbreaking data journalism with Wikileaks to the phone-hacking story, a long and difficult investigation that ultimately upended British society.

It has been able to do so because it is constituted under a trust which requires it to act under the higher goal of the public service. But, as this useful New Statesman profile of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger notes, The Guardian and its sister paper The Observer lost £37m last year. Rusbridger and his visionaries may yet reach the promised land, but I doubt they'll be towing an old-fashioned newspaper business behind them by the time they do.

Amid all this, a new model, one founded on the direct support of the public, is emerging. ProPublica describes itself as "a non-profit, independent newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest." It is steered by some very serious editorial talent and, with the support of charitable foundations, has achieved a lot in its five years. This recent backgrounder is a must-read. Founder Paul Steiger's four original recommendations to the Sandler Foundation bear repeating:

• The first one was to rely on a permanent staff as opposed to hired guns. "To do the kind of journalism we wanted to do, you must have people comfortable enough to stay on the story as long as needed. You also must accept dry holes. Freelancers will starve in such conditions!"

• Two, for the biggest stories, he wanted to partner with one or two large news organisations that could be granted some exclusivity over a short period of time in exchange for good visibility.

• Three, in order to guarantee the widest reach, Paul Steiger wanted to distribute the material freely on the web.

• Four, he would solely be responsible for content; funders or other contributors would not be involved in selecting stories. (Actually, on ProPublica's first board meeting, none of the financial backers knew what the newsroom was working on.)

I know that those principles have been a key influence for Bernard in developing the ideas for journalism.org.nz. But New Zealand does not have the long US  tradition of charitable support for public-good ventures (example: the Pew Charitable Trusts, a brilliant non-profit founded with the fortune of a bigoted oilman). It's necessary, and fair, to ask individuals to carry some of the load.

I think of this as the subscriber-radio model. Everyone can hear a radio station, and if members of the public subscribe to that station, they do so in the knowledge that people who haven't paid will hear just the same radio station as the people who have. There are various ways to arrange such a scheme: offering advertising-free access, entitling subscribers to preferential entry to events, offering a staged subscription system so that people who can give more, do. But I think non-exclusivity of the core offering is a bottom line.

In that light, I'd have to say I think the question in Bernard's first poll is the wrong one. He asks readers what they'd pay "for ability to comment on articles and editorial policy plus invitations to events." I don't think it's a good idea to restrict entry to discussions to those who want and can afford to pay.

But the poll does go some way to establishing a benchmark for how much people will be willing to pay. In our discussions, Bernard talked about eventually recruiting, say, 6000 subscribers at $95 annually. That's not a huge budget, but it's a basic retainer for a handful of senior journalists, or funding for several specific investigatve stories. It's a modest, realistic goal.

Bernard's isn't the only new thinking out there locally at the moment. Stephen Judd has republished a useful post on supporting public-interest journalism in response to Bernard's news. I'm aware of a couple of other ideas in development, and I may want to formalise the way Public Address readers have helped pay the development bills here over the past year. Various open-source content management systems now available for independent journalism, such as the Armstrong CMS, include "membership management" features, and I'd be interested in hearing about modular solutions that we could use.

But in the meantime, Bernard has my support and it's likely that I and possibly other Public Address contributors will be involved with what he's doing in future. It's a good thing.

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