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The Need to Reinvent Journalism While We Can

A while back I asked: What will happen when only the journalism is left? I received a GPS for Christmas and saw how easy it will be for all of us to reach into our pockets and call up any item or service we want to buy, and get immediate directions to the store to make the purchase. That does not bode well for newspaper advertising. Neither does the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s drop in value from $1.2 billion to $530 million bode well for the future of the present newspaper business model.

So the question: What will happen when only the journalism is left? What will people pay just for journalism? What is journalism by itself worth as a commodity?

Here is some information to help you figure it out–delivered with a caveat, I don’t know much about the business side. See this as a starter, something with which to begin to build upon:

A newspaper with a circulation of about 100,000 circulation has an annual newsroom budget, I am told in the $8 to $10 million range. So that comes out to $100 a year per subscriber. I think a doable figure, especially since not all the ads will go away. Of course, we are talking about a product that is delivered online. No printing, no paper and no massive distribution costs. Remember just the journalism. Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reported its annual revenue from membership and individual gifts was about $11.7 million for the fiscal year that ended in June 2006. So people are willing to pay for a very high quality product–with the emphasis on high quality in a state, Minnesota, that is nationally recognized for its civic engagement.

Most of the money raised would be plowed back into producing better journalism. In fact, the whole enterprise will have to be seen as a community trust. As such it will inform the citizens, be a watch dog, get to intimately know its neighborhoods and the people within them and to help communities engage in conversations, deliberation and civic life. In this model, which is no longer driven by advertising, everyone is heard.

We do have one major obstacle. Right now almost all of the major news organizations are embedded in great heaps of brick and mortar. Plus even though there are firewalls, it would be hard to just pluck a newsroom out of the bigger business that is wrapped around it. That might happen in time. Another problem was cited by Philip Meyer, author of the Vanishing Newspaper. I asked him a couple of years ago if the big corporations were likely to fight for quality journalism or take all the profits now while they can. His answer:

The mainstream will harvest the goose. It’s the rational thing to do. The decline is happening so slowly that they can make more money in the career span of any present-day manager than they are likely to realize by making high-risk bets on the future.

But he added:

there will come a magic moment in the life span of every old medium, when it has harvested so much good will that it is vulnerable to competition. There are cases like that starting to develop.

And here is the opening:

A good newspaper helps a community develop its sense of self. The influence model involves at least two dimensions: trust and community affiliation. A strong community develops economic interdependence that makes the newspaper — what Rich Oppel once called “the convenor of the community” — the most desirable place to put advertising messages.

Newspapers yield that function when they conceptualize themselves as mere platforms for delivering eyeballs to advertisers in the cheapest possible way. When they do that, it creates an opening for entrepreneurs to come from other fields and try to build influence on their own.

In my envisioned journalism only world, the reporters would rarely go to the office. There might not even be much of an office. Bricks and mortar would be reduced as much as possible. And if there were an office, it would be very tiny. Perhaps just for the editors. The reporters would be Solo Journalists of Mobile Journalists, SoJos or MoJos, with everything they need in their backpacks — a computer, cell phone, digital recorder and still and video camera. Their home base would be their piece of the community they were assigned to cover. For a month they might set up at a barber shop, then a cafe, then a community center, then a nursing home. Part of the day they would work out of the house. Like an old-fashioned beat cop, they would really immerse themselves into their community. I know this is possible. For three and half years in the beginning of my journalism career I covered the northern part of Carroll County, New Hampshire for the weekly Carroll County Independent. I only had to go into the office once a week, but I had to produce a week’s worth of stories. It was a small town and everyone knew me and respected the fact that I was there to produce real journalism, and to write stories that told of their lives and their communities. Of course, community members in this model will be part of the mix, part of the conversation, they will feel ownership and perhaps might be given ownership, depending on the business model devised. No community would be forgotten. No censorship by omission.

This does not mean less journalism. It might, given innovative thinking, mean more journalism, even international journalism. Here is one possibility. Every city and most small towns have immigrant populations. Immigrants from the same country or even the same hometowns tend to cluster in towns and cities here. Why not hire a reporter back in their home country to produce news that makes sense for each immigrant community. The pay scale would be a fair wage for the country in which the reporter lives. In other words, it would be affordable. This might be a cooperative venture among several newspapers.

I used to work at Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) and one of my favorite memories was of our then Governor Jesse Ventura complaining to MPR talk show host Gary Eichten that the MPR had all this modern equipment. Jesse “The Body” Ventura saying something like, “Hey, Gary, what’s going on here. You’re suppose to be a nonprofit. Look at this mike it’s worth a fortune. Back at my station, the mike’s held together by duct tape. Come on Gary, you’re suppose to be a nonprofit.”

Gary’s answer was: that’s right we are a nonprofit and thus all the money goes back into making a better product and none is siphoned off into the pockets stockholders bleeding the profits. That’s the kind of model that is needed. A model where everything goes back into paying for the journalism. High quality equipment, high quality reporters and editors paid an excellent wage, high quality connectivity with the communities served, and high quality journalism that helps the community members find their way, while always being ready to speak truth to power. We can do it.

PS: Since you got this far, you will be the first to know: The folks who helped to run the Journalism that Matters mini conference in Memphis and I are starting the first stage planning of an unconference in Washington, DC on August 7-8, 2007, where the proposed topic is: What Will Happen When Only the Journalism Is Left?

Stay tuned. This will be interesting.

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