Who will be our watchdogs?

One of the best panels I went to at the Women, Action and Media Conference was about the state of non-profit media models and how to sustain and thrive as a non-profit magazine in a competitive marketplace, where you can get material for free on the web, you are not supported in investigative endeavors and you are already marginalized for being lefty. Yeah, the conversation was a little bit depressing.

According to Katharine Mieszkowski at Salon
in the article “Spare Change,” about non-profit media models, things are looking grim for business media, so many local papers are looking for alternative types of funding. The question is, is this a viable solution.

But newspapers have been driven to the brink by the expectation of making the kind of double-digit profits that large corporate owners demand, and by the financial shenanigans, including loading up on debt, that corporate ownership has brought. That’s why some observers, notably financial experts, believe the future of the news business is not business at all.
On the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, David Swensen, chief investment officer at Yale University, and Michael Schmidt, a financial analyst, argued that newspapers should operate through endowments, like universities. San Francisco investment banker Warren Hellman convened a meeting about possibly taking the San Francisco Chronicle nonprofit in an attempt to save it from extinction.
The challenge for nonprofit journalism is both daunting and exciting. Long before the current recession and radical cutbacks, many newspapers had lost their community watchdog function, no longer bothering with the expensive and time-consuming work of investigative reporting. A 2005 survey by Arizona State University of the 100 largest U.S. dailies found that 37 percent had no full-time investigative reporters, and the majority of the major dailies had two or fewer.

As many of our readers who work in non-profit funded magazines can tell you, it is a daily battle to stay afloat and many, many good magazines have shut down over the last few years due to an inability to find consistent funding sources. I have even heard of editors and publishers working for no salary for months at a time in an attempt to keep their magazine open.
We have multiple issues here, from the variations in different types of magazines and newspapers, to the dearth of investigative journalism, to the corporate take-over of media, and the increase of new media and blogs that have changed the media game as we know it, but the underlying issue of access remains the same. The American public has the right to news in its varied, complex and multiple incarnations and one of the side effects of corporate takeover of media has been an increase in independent news sources (monetizing and non, ahem) to bring the truth to the people. The problem isn’t trying to figure out if the non-profit model will work on a theoretical level. It should work, but it is generally not sustainable. The problem is that when media became corporate-owned and corporate-driven, it became commodified and the basic belief that access to media and fair representation in all aspects of media from production to reporting-is as fundamental a right as education, health care and housing-went out the window.
Hey, if you can get your newspaper to stay afloat by using a non-profit model I am all for it, but we must critically think about the role of the news in the life of the American. The representations of women and people of color in mainstream corporate owned media based on stereotypes and non-truths as opposed to evidence and investigative methods have had detrimental impacts on our communities, and we have a unique opportunity to organize around that while we risk losing even more control of public media.
Thanks to Neela for the link.

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  • everybodyever

    I disagree that the media being corporate-owned is a problem. Nonprofits are corporate-driven, anyway: They rely on donations from, and therefore make a point of serving, corporations and other wealthy philanthropists. That is inevitable, particularly for nonprofits that, like publishing would if it went that route, require a lot of funding. I’d bet that if some of the publishers went nonprofit, they’d be far more swayed by corporate backers than they are now.
    I do think it’s a problem, however, that news publishing has become as consolidated as it has. But then, antitrust watchdogs in the U.S. have really been slacking ever since Bush took office.
    Newspaper companies are failing neither because print news is obsolete nor because they’re corporate-run. They’re failing because their executives and boards are obsolete and therefore continue to make abysmal corporate decisions.
    I mean, the New York Times Co.’s publisher Art Sulzberger Jr. is a reporter through and through. He’s only secondarily a businessman. Of course he’s going to romanticize and invest heavily in print journalism.
    In the past few years, as his company’s lost money, it’s shed its television holdings and decided to buy the failing Boston Globe, of all things. (Now, unsurprisingly, it’s threatening to shutter the Globe.) And, oh yeah, it’s opened a gorgeous new building to celebrate its descent toward insolvency. Gannett, meanwhile, has seen its stock price plummet steadily over the last year. I think it’s telling that each company has really only one major internet internet asset: a fairly traditional resource Web site that mimics newsprint.
    The problem comes in approaching newspaper publishers as many have approached the major Detroit car makers or the big investment banks: Nice relics of strong American business success that must be propped up, even if it means nationalizing them or turning them into nonprofits. Nostalgia is a shitty reason to keep pumping cash into a failing company.
    If these companies fail, then yes, they will drag a lot of jobs down with them. But the idea that anything is too big, important or culturally necessary to fail is bull. If they’re really that important, they should be better managed, regulated and funded at the outset.
    My main concern about the failure of news publishing is that I don’t think the internet is a good replacement for a batch of papers. That’s because when you read the paper, you’re sort of forced to notice articles on topics you might not otherwise read. You can’t be as selective. You get national, local, international, political and cultural news all on one sheet of paper. You can’t automatically weed out anything that doesn’t corroborate your own views by clicking straight to publications that mesh only with your own views, whether it’s Human Events or Mother Jones. (In fact, I think Nick Kristof wrote something similar recently in the Times of all places.)
    My other concern is that journalistic standards will fall as people begin to think blogging a sufficient replacement for reporting. It isn’t. It isn’t held to the same standards as journalism. It requires much less in terms of fact-checking, investigation and source-gathering. Journalism could certainly use some updating, but I hope the standards don’t slide.
    Also, regarding this:
    A 2005 survey by Arizona State University of the 100 largest U.S. dailies found that 37 percent had no full-time investigative reporters, and the majority of the major dailies had two or fewer.
    The article makes it sound like papers just aren’t doing investigative journalism, but I assume that this statistic is more a function of consolidation and syndication and, more so, of freelancing. Given the role freelancing plays now, 37% actually seems surprisingly low to me.