There are some exciting things happening in online journalism at the moment, as highlighted by this New York Times article. Sites such as VoicesofSanDiego.org, MinnPost in the Twin Cities, the St. Louis Beacon, the New Haven Independent in Connecticut, and Crosscut in Seattle, are rising up as sources of independent and original reporting in cities across the US. They have paid staffs, often made up of reporters and editors who’ve been let go from newspapers, and have begun to serve an important role as local government watchdogs and advocates for the citizenry. That role has traditionally been served by city newspapers, of course, but with advertising revenue falling and wire service reporting making up the bulk of many American newspapers, these websites have taken up the slack. Many feature original photography, as well. This is great to see, but I have my doubts that these sites can fully replace the newspapers of yore. Their audiences are small, and much lower revenues online necessitate smaller staffs.
Another possible model is that presented by sites such as Spot.Us. As this New York Times article explains, the site allows people to pitch story ideas and budgets for the completion of the work. Visitors donate money until a goal is reached and the story-pitcher works on the story. Upon completion, if the story is picked up by a big media company, the donations will be refunded; otherwise, the work is released under a Creative Commons license. The site was a recipient of one of those Knight Foundation grants for new media. Without considering why Creative Commons licensing might be a bad idea, the Spot.Us model seems promising. Once again, it’s great to see this sort of innovation for community reporting. A lot of people have noticed Spot.Us, including TechCrunch and Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist. But it’s hard to see how this model would extend to international or long-term investigative reporting, which is orders of magnitude more expensive and more difficult to undertake than investigating why there aren’t more express buses serving downtown San Francisco.
A few organizations have stepped in to provide funding for international and long-term investigative journalism. The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and ProPublica are two such entities. But two small organizations (and a handful of grants) are a far cry from numerous newspapers and magazines maintaining large, international staffs in bureaus the world over.
Another danger in these models is that they require some confidence in so-called Long Tail markets and fan-based support. Marginalization and compartmentalization of the news, i.e. if I want to read about the war in Georgia I go to this website, but if I want to read about the Minnesota Senate race I go to this other website, runs the risk of spreading resources too thinly. By relying on individual contributions for newsgathering, split down to a story-by-story level, there’s a strong possibility that we’ll only ever see the news that the crowd wants to see. While that happens now, to an extent, the FoxNews model of crafting reporting to represent a particular perspective will run rampant if viewers and readers set the news budget with their own money. The New York Times model, whereby high-end fashion and travel pieces and advertising provide a budget for reporting well outside those worlds, allows for the investigation and publication of news that some readers might consider uninteresting or unimportant or unpatriotic, but which serve important civil or historical purposes. All of this is to say, it might not be a good idea allowing the wisdom of crowds that push Britney Spears and Paris Hilton news to the forefront (great article at the Atlantic about the paparazzi machine built on Britney Spears) to set the agenda for political, economic, or conflict reporting.
Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, whose ideas have been discussed over at APhotoEditor.com, just today reeled back his theory of Long Tailed Everything. His idea, that the internet provides the possibility to make money and fans in the extreme niches of any particular interest, was predicated on data gathered before mainstream money was being spent on mainstream things by mainstream American on the internet. Now, instead of providing infinite possibilities for making money in even the smallest niches, the internet fuels makes pre-internet superstars even bigger. Brands are consolidating, and the hoped for money and funding at the edges of society and discourse is proving even more difficult to grasp. For all it’s possibilities, Amazon makes its biggest money on Harry Potter and the like, and iTunes sells the usual hits from the Billboard Top 40.
If the news of the future is created through sites like Spot.Us, we might never hear about future genocides or government wiretapping programs. I don’t want to fall into the trap of looking down on journalism’s consumers, thinking they’re uninterested in Things That Matter, but I also see a value in exposure to reporting that readers and viewers (myself included) might not seek out themselves.