It's not that these papers aren't making money — the LA Times, for example, remains profitable. But in the past decade, waves of mergers and consolidations led the giant conglomerates that own many US newspapers to take on huge debt. And private investors are demanding returns that may have been possible in the boom years of a decade ago but are only possible today if costs are cut so deeply that the basic journalistic mission of the nation's great newspapers is in danger.
The alternative press isn't exempt. The past decade has seen a wave of increased consolidation in the weekly industry, and at least one chain is now in serious financial trouble. Creative Loafing, which has its flagship paper in the big and growing Atlanta market, filed for bankruptcy this year. The company borrowed millions to buy Chicago Reader and Washington City Paper. Although all three papers were making money, when advertising slowed down, debt payments overwhelmed revenue.
Westword, a paper owned by Village Voice Media, a heavily leveraged chain, reported Dec. 18 on rumors that its parent company was facing financial problems. The conclusion of media critic Michael Roberts: the chain is doing fine. (Full disclosure: The Guardian won a lawsuit against VVM this year; the $18 million verdict is on appeal.)
So the scene is wide open for new approaches.
Among the San Franciscans who have taken a lead role in creating a new model for print journalism is Michael Stoll, the former San Francisco Examiner city editor who for the last few years has been spearheading creation of Public Press (www.public-press.org), which aims to create a non-commercial daily newspaper supported by readers and foundation grants.
The project (which Steven T. Jones has been involved with supporting) has a working business plan, began offering limited content during the last election, and recently received a grant from the San Francisco Foundation. Stoll said the time has come for a new newspaper model.
"It seems like the existing commercial models of journalism were always problematic, but their faults only became apparent when the economy started to fail. And we're now faced with an abandonment of the core principles that media companies said they would never stray from," Stoll said, listing basic government and corporate accountability among those core principles.
"The daily, routine coverage of public policy is now performed very selectively, even as the optional, more entertaining coverage is beefed up. There comes a point when the public's patience with those priorities wears very thin and it increasingly demands straight talk," Stoll said.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
The problem is how to fund it. News Web sites like ProPublica.org and journalism collectives such as the Center for Investigative Reporting have relied on large foundation grants to fund investigative and other public interest journalism. That's fine for some things — but foundations often have their own political agendas, and the influence of foundation agendas on grant recipients can be pernicious (see "Pulling strings," 10/8/1997). Foundation funding isn't reliable, and a news outlet that became critical of the pet causes of a major funder could quickly find its income cut off.
Another model is being developed by Spot.Us (with the help of a two-year, $340,000 grant from the Knight Foundation).
Spot.us founder David Cohn wrote for Wired and the Columbia Journalism Review before going on to work as both a freelance journalist and technical consultant to news organizations. That unique combination, during a time of industry decline, got him thinking about how to fund good, public interest journalism.