In Depth

Sorting Out Journalism's New Funding Proposals

By Elizabeth Jensen

All fall, they came fast and furious: Another conference or report on new funding models to reinvent and save journalism. Conferences at Harvard, Yale, Aspen, and reports from the Knight Foundation and Columbia University’s Journalism School, just to name a few.

The consensus? There wasn’t one. There are lots of ideas, but no clear picture yet of what will work.

The Knight Foundation has been at the forefront of encouraging new models through grants to organizations that use digital open-source technology; are targeted at local and geographic, not virtual, communities; and allow universal access. The approach is that “Everybody should try new models,” said Jose Zamora, a program associate in the foundation’s journalism program. “There’s no other way to find what’s next than to experiment.”

So far, he said, crowd-funding — or soliciting direct donations for specific stories — as practiced at Spot.us (http://spot.us/) seems to be doing well, as is a site called Printcasting.com, where writers and advertisers submit material to the site for readers to print out custom magazines. A Knight-funded hyperlocal aggregation site called Everyblock.com was purchased by MSNBC, he noted, which “in a way is a huge success in itself, recognition that we’re doing something that’s valued by the media world.”

Some nonprofit news sites such as the VoiceofSanDiego.org, which taps the support of individuals, foundations and businesses to fund its targeted reporting, are also making a go of it. Knight is also high on the potential of community foundations to support local journalism: In early January, it said it would invest $70 million over seven years in community foundations, double its current investment, to help foster “informed, engaged communities.”

Many others, however, insist that there’s a need to think much, much bigger.

In the 100-page October report "The Reconstruction of American Journalism," commissioned by Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the Columbia University Journalism School, authors Leonard Downie, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a professor at the Journalism School, give a nod to community foundations and philanthropy as possible options.

But the recommendation that got the most attention, and drew the most controversy, was to encourage greater public funding of traditional newsrooms, through changes in the federal tax code, redirection of government money already given to public broadcasting, and through direct public investment in a fund for local newsgathering.

Not all the reaction was negative. Still, Schudson said, much of it was along the lines of “you guys are communists or idiots,” because “government funding equals government control.”

In fact, he noted, there’s already government funding of newsgathering in the U.S. through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, not to mention the U.K.’s BBC. “The BBC has not turned the U.K. into the Soviet Union,” he said, and at home, “We have a 40-year record of public funding of broadcasting.”

The authors recommended that CPB, whose grants to local public broadcasting stations often are used to support infrastructure, instead be directed to require those stations to do local news coverage in exchange for their federal monies. Of all the report’s recommendations, he said, getting National Public Radio affiliates, in particular, to ramp up local reporting is “the one that seems to me practical.”

Many NPR affiliates are starting down that road already. NPR’s CPB-funded Argo Project for the past year has been training reporters from local stations to tell stories related to the community impact of the global financial crisis.

PBS is taking its own steps to support local journalism, although they are more limited. In early January, PBS announced that by May it will launch a new Web site that will aggregate all of the programming service’s news and public affairs programming, as well as content from NPR, to make it easier to find. A key component of the project is taking place behind the scenes: PBS is overhauling its digital content management system so that the Web site will also be able to offer up to users journalism that has been produced at their local public station.

Locally, some PBS stations have begun teaming up with local newspaper reporters — some of them the casualties of economic downsizing — to increase community reporting.

Schudson acknowledged two of the challenges to increasing public funding of traditional media: Finding the federal funds, and insulating the newsrooms from political pressure. U.S. public broadcasting has grappled with both in recent years under the Republican Bush Administration, which routinely tried to cut CPB’s appropriation and installed a CPB head who attempted to impose politically driven programming changes at PBS. But, he added, those challenges aren’t unconquerable.

Journalists, said Lemann, the Journalism School’s dean, “are really socialized not to think about what we do in a policy context.” Ask a typical journalist what in the public policy realm is relevant to journalism, he said, and the answer is, “We want one thing: A shield law and everything to be publicly disclosed, and that’s it.”

While journalists traditionally like to think of what they do as a public trust, expecting that owners should be willing to operate at a lower profit margin because of their public responsibility, he said, “when the economy has changed as radically as it has, that answer isn’t as satisfying.”