The traditional media is in a tailspin, but can a new generation of visionaries revive the watchdog press?
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Journalism, the critics say, is dying. The model of news reporting that has dominated the United States for most of the past century — big, well-funded outfits paying reporters and editors to choose and produce what the public reads or views — is crumbling. The main culprits are media consolidation and corporate cutbacks, but the downward spiral is also being fed by declining readership, competition from the Internet, investor expectations, demographic shifts, self-inflicted wounds, and myriad other factors.
This years-long trend is hardly even news anymore, but there were some troubling developments in 2008. Some of the problems facing newspapers and broadcast outlets are the result of a bad economy, but everyone agrees the issues run deeper.
At the same time, however, countervailing forces are gathering momentum, many of them based in California and some in the Bay Area. People who believe in the indispensable role that reporters and editors play in this society are developing news models, ideas for reinventing journalism that could blossom in 2009.
From the Huffington Post  and its 8 million monthly visitors to journalism experiments such as Spot.us  and the San Francisco Public Press  being hatched right here in San Francisco, the media landscape is shifting. As traditional newspapers contract and wrestle with relevance in the online age, Internet-based news organizations are filling the void and seeking to change the rules along the way.
Nowhere was this new reality more on display than last summer at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, where Bay Area new media powerhouses that included MoveOn.org , the Daily Kos , and Digg.com  created the Big Tent, which played host to everyone from small-time bloggers to the most powerful politicians and big time political thinkers.
Among them was Arianna Huffington, the HuffPo founder who has become a leading voice for media reform and reinvention. The vision for journalism she espoused from the stage is a familiar one to Guardian readers but apostasy to believers in journalistic objectivity: writing from a progressive perspective to hold the powerful accountable to the public.
"Our highest responsibility is to the truth," Huffington told us in a recent interview. "The truth is not about splitting the difference between one side and the other. Sometimes one side is speaking the truth ... The central mission of journalism is the search for the truth."
But the HuffPo has come under some criticism for not paying its legions of bloggers and for occasionally lifting content from media outlets that do pay their people. Searching for truth may be the central mission of journalism, but news organizations still have to find ways to fairly compensate the people who do so. Citizen journalism and blogging may be wonderful additions to the landscape, but in the end, democracy require reporters. You can't properly cover City Hall or monitor the White House unless it's a full-time job. And that seems to be the big challenge in this era of overextended resources.
The mainstream media landscape is bleak. Nearly every major newspaper in the country laid off significant numbers of reporters in the past year. The Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, among other properties, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December, and it's entirely possible that several other big media companies will follow the same path in 2009.
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.
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.
Cohn developed the idea of creating a Web site where writers could pitch news stories and solicit funding for them directly from the public, a concept that drew from bloggers such as Christopher Allbritton and his Back-to-Iraq blog, as well as innovative charity sites such as DonorsChoose.org.
Stories published by Spot.us are then licensed under the Creative Commons, allowing anyone to use them for free and spread the work. News organizations can also buy the rights to an article by repaying Spot.us, or they can get the site to help fund their freelancers by paying for half up front and letting donors cover the rest.
"Everyone can benefit: the news organizations, the writers, and the public. But the market needs to be rethought," Cohn told us, noting that the success of his venture will be up to the users. "It depends on whether people will see journalism as a public good and want to fund good stories."
Media outlets that aim to have a full-time news-gathering staff need to tap into more stable funding sources — or they have to start slow and hope their new ideas catch on.
"With the extremely limited funding we're starting out with, we're planning to start a hybrid freelancer/volunteer news operation, and that's not terribly sustainable in the long run," Stoll said. "But we hope to increase our financial wherewithal on pace with increasing our news operations."
Although finding resources for his new model is a difficult task in the current fiscal climate, the need becomes stronger all the time. "When talk centers on how long the commercial press will be able to operate in our community, it's never too soon to talk about long-range alternatives," Stoll said.
Stoll left the Examiner in November 2002 after clashing with the owners, the Fang family, about how to cover the city. After that, Stoll joined the media watchdog group Grade the News and taught journalism at San Jose State University, where he still works.
"The readers probably guessed that public interest coverage was not the Examiner's top priority, and they voted with their quarters not to support the paper long enough to see it survive in that incarnation," Stoll said, referring to how the Examiner was sold to Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz after the Fang's court-ordered subsidy ended. "And I see the same thing happening with the Chronicle."
Still, there are some new journalism experiments that have shown they can be moneymakers, most notably HuffPo, which has translated its enormous popularity into a substantial revenue stream from its online ads, a dynamic it has parlayed into increasing venture capital funding to expand its operations.
But HuffPo is still struggling to find a business model that allows it to expand its original reporting and pay journalists a living wage, a problem highlighted recently by a controversy about HuffPo stealing content without permission.
In an interview with the Guardian, Huffington admitted that HuffPo did inadvertently steal content from newspapers including Chicago Reader, which highlighted the issue on its blog, triggering a lively online discussion.
"With regards to the Chicago Reader, that was completely our editor's fault, and it completely violated our guidelines, so I sent a letter to them wholeheartedly apologizing," she told us.
Huffington said it's important to honestly admit mistakes and use integrity to win the public trust. "We want to be very transparent about what we're doing," she said.
As for the larger issue of not paying for content, she makes a distinction between journalism and blogging, citing the mantra, "Facts are sacred, opinion is free."
That means HuffPo bloggers benefit from a large audience for their work and from a team of moderators who filter out the flames and personal attacks that constitute so much of the online commenting. But they don't get paid.
"We pay our reporters, we pay our editors, we pay anyone who works to report the news. But we don't pay anyone who blogs their opinions," she said.
In this media transition period, original reporting is being done on blogs (such as the politics blog at sfbg.com), that line isn't so clear. But it does single out the important role that professional, full-time journalists play in the media landscape.
She said HuffPo now has six editors and writers on the payroll in Washington, DC, on top of the 50 employees (which includes technical, administrative, and advertising staff) in New York. And the outfit is in the process of launching an investigative reporting fund and story funding service, with models similar to Spot.us and Propublica.org. As Huffington said, "We're all basically trying to reinvent journalism."
But HuffPo's model of journalism isn't really that radical. The notion that reporters are allowed to have opinions, that news outlets can take on causes, push issues and represent the public interest, has been a part of the nation's media landscape since before the American Revolution. The technology that allows almost anyone to publish a blog, and allows the public to comment on and challenge what's written, is only a modern version of a long tradition. Small printing presses and small publishers with influential pamphlets date back to before Thomas Paine helped spark the revolution with Common Sense. And before the news media got huge, reporters and editors were part of the communities they covered and heard from their readers every day.
In many ways, the media pioneers these days are looking at reestablishing the best roots of the American press. The only thing missing at this point is the business model that, in 2009, works well enough to pay for it.