The same old story turns into a new one as start-ups multiply

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.

The picture isn't much brighter in local television. KDNL in St. Louis and WYOU in Scranton, Pa., have dropped their newscasts altogether. At about 200 stations around the country, the local news is produced by other stations. The Federal Communications Commission "no longer effectively enforces the public service requirement," the study says.

Commercial radio stations, except for a handful of big-city outlets, do little or no local reporting. At the same time, "only a relatively small number" of public radio stations offer much on-the-ground reporting. Downie and Schudson urge the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to "require a minimum amount of local news reporting" by every radio and TV station it helps subsidize.

The authors recommend that the FCC use money it collects in broadcasting and telephone fees to create a national Fund for Local News, which would award grants for innovative local reporting -- even to profit-making outfits. Schudson expects resistance to that idea, "not only from people who don't want government to spend more money, but from journalists who think any money from the government is a mark of the devil."

I'm in that camp, because of the potential taint of political agendas. But the free market, in its halting, haphazard way, seems to be coughing up some money for new kinds of journalism.

It's increasingly clear that newspapers, which soaked up advertising in exchange for a general smorgasbord of news and features, are headed for a permanent era of decline. (One interesting tidbit from the report: Newspapers are less battered in cities with no Craigslist.) What was once a forest dominated by mighty oaks is now an uneven landscape that includes saplings, flowers, weeds and bald patches of grass.

These journalistic sprouts may never grow into towering institutions, and it's hard to imagine that coverage of city hall, Capitol Hill and Kabul won't suffer. But they may produce more diverse, energized reporting than the top-down monopolies of the past. They may be better suited to cover neighborhoods, recruit amateurs, engage in real dialogue and have fun in the process. "The days of a kind of news media paternalism . . . are largely gone," the report says. If that's true, not everyone will mourn the old way of doing things. Time for the kids to take over.

They said it

Ted Turner is no fan of printed newspapers, telling the Hollywood Reporter: "You're chopping all these trees down and making paper out of them and trying to deal with all the waste paper. It's the biggest solid waste problem that we have."

New Republic columnist Jonathan Chait, dissing his industry's most prestigious prize, says magazine folks "tend to be both obsessed with who wins and convinced the process is a pathetic joke. . . . The last time the New Republic won a National Magazine Award, it was for publishing Betsy McCaughey's infamous anti-Clintoncare screed 'No Exit,' which is probably the worst article in the history of TNR."

This isn't my philosophy, but Gawker founder Nick Denton tells the gossip site's staff in a memo of "a few cases recently where we've thought *way* too much before publishing. . . . There's always a good argument for waiting. Let's check to see whether the associated claim is true; oh, the source might be exposed. But we should publish anyway, making clear what we know to be true and what remains up in the air. . . . We can always update. We can always write a second post when we've established more of the facts."

Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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