Howard Kurtz's Media Notes: The future of journalism

By Howard Kurtz
Monday, October 19, 2009

In California, a former editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune has launched an investigative reporting project that plans to sell stories to her old paper at lower cost.

In Kentucky, the University of Kentucky has created a Web site for Lexington residents who are being trained to report neighborhood news.

In Ohio, the eight largest papers -- from the Cleveland Plain Dealer to the Youngstown Vindicator -- share virtually all their reporting, freeing up staff for independent digging.

News organizations may be shrinking, as you have heard ad nauseam, but journalism is being revived and reinvented in some encouraging ways, a new report says.

Despite the "immediate disaster" striking newspapers, says Michael Schudson, a professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, he was struck by "the really stunning enthusiasm and excitement of people engaged in many of these startups, who were just bubbling over with what they were doing." Schudson wrote the report with Leonard Downie Jr., The Washington Post's former executive editor, who is now a professor at Arizona State University.

Their recommendations -- particularly for a federally financed fund to subsidize local reporting -- might not fly. But amid all the hand-wringing over newspaper deaths and bankruptcies, "The Reconstruction of American Journalism" makes clear that a thousand media flowers are, if not blooming, at least popping up.

These new ventures "are actually re-creating the kind of competition that used to exist in local news reporting a long time ago," says Downie, now a Post Co. vice president at large. He's not worried about their quality because "most of them have been started by seasoned professionals who used to work for newspapers. My greater concern is the fragility of their economic base."

Some of the former newspaper and magazine journalists are acting out of necessity, others as mid-career entrepreneurs. Former Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith is helping to raise part of a $3.5 million budget from donors in the state, including T. Boone Pickens, to start the nonprofit Texas Tribune in Austin. Former Washington Post and Baltimore Sun reporter Fern Shen recently launched the Baltimore Brew blog, from her kitchen table, with other ex-Sun journalists, and is trying to raise money from advertisers. Former Chicago Tribune reporter Geoff Dougherty, who has won plaudits for starting the Chitown Daily News recently concluded he can't make it with foundation funds and is leaving with his team to launch a moneymaking news site.

Campuses, from the University of Wisconsin to the University of Maryland, are producing more professional-level journalism with student manpower. Former Boston Globe reporter Walter Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has used his Northeastern University students to conduct 11 front-page investigations for the Globe since 2007. The report urges more universities to become centers for professional reporting, as they are for medicine, law, science, business, engineering and education.

The authors found more journalists collaborating with ordinary folks. At ProPublica, which has furnished investigative reporting to such news organizations as The Post, the New York Times, CBS, NBC and ABC, a former Huffington Post staffer recruited citizen volunteers to monitor 520 of the 6,000 projects approved for federal stimulus funds. New and old media are cooperating on several fronts, with nine-month-old Global Post, a network of 65 freelancers around the world, selling stories to newspapers and CBS News.

Foundations are funding many of the hyper-local startups -- the report urges them to do more -- and in some cases are going even further. The Kaiser Family Foundation has started a nonprofit news service to cover health care.

None of this outweighs the hemorrhaging in the establishment media. In recent years the Sun's newsroom has shrunk from more than 400 journalists to about 150; the Philadelphia Inquirer from 600 to 300; the San Francisco Chronicle from 500 to about 200; the Los Angeles Times from more than 1,100 to fewer than 600.

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