Sustainable Journalism in the Age of Internet

Several years ago, I ran into Len Witt at Blog Nashville, where he caught my attention because he was a journalist who was trying out blogging with an open mind and he had a very solid commitment to the social responsibility side of journalism that was called “civic journalism” just before the days of Internet. He was looking at ideas of community and civil society and how electronic media could help those interested in civic journalism be more effective.

Len Witt, who spent most of his professional career as a journalist, is currently the Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication at Kennesaw State University and chief blogger at PJNet where he writes about public and citizen journalism and how to get citizens’ voices heard.

About a year ago, Witt proposed that readers be asked to help pay for a journalist if they felt they were underrepresented in the news. He took issue with the idea that reporters are cogs and “interchangeable parts.” He uses “representative journalist” to describe the kind of reporter that lives in a community and “produces new knowledge” that can inform a local economy. This model doesn’t push for advocate journalists, but for expert analysts who educate and interact with a community to produce trustworthy, transparent information and knowledge. That’s the kind of news citizens need to function in a modern democracy.

Witt received funding for the idea and started a project in rural Minnesota, but now he’s landed 1.5 million dollar grant to start a Center for Sustainable Journalism which will “seek new business models so that high quality, ethically sound journalism continues to have a role in our democratic society,”  according to  Business week.

“…Northfield, Minn., “hired” Bonnie Obremski to cover local topics like crime, education, and events on an existing blog called Locally Grown….Obremski’s salary and expenses are paid for entirely by a grant from The Harnisch Foundation, but in coming months, Witt plans to raise enough local support from Northfield residents to pass the entire cost on to them. A community of 1,000 potential contributors, he says, each paying between $1 and $2 per week, would be sufficient. People in the community understand that eventually they’ll be asked to ante up.”

I think the idea of reporters who have grounding in a particular community is vital and comes from a deep and real connection to democracy.

In Chicago, bringing together journalists, the business folks in journalism, and the foundations, to think about initiatives like this would be useful. Hybrid funding models connect us to the importance of journalism as “glue” in a community and move toward “buy-in” and participation by “people formerly known as the audience” as well as professional journalists.

In Chicago, civic associations and advocacy groups might get involved in similar projects around the parks and environment, fighting pollution, public transportation, sports, theater, movies — you name it — to contribute to supporting reporters and investigative projects. Dave Cohn’s spot.us is a great example of this.

A reporter can pitch an investigative story, put up his or her qualifications and describe the project, and spot.us will help collect donations until a project is funded. Currently, reporter Aaron Crowe has proposed a story “The future of Bay Area newspapers in a digital age and changing economy.”  He says “This story will help newspaper readers in the Bay Area understand what their papers have planned for 2009, including how the Internet will affect the daily newspaper they hold in their hand every morning. It will look into the viability of newspapers in the Bay Area and what they plan to do to survive.”

Through spot.us, Crowe has raised $475 and needs $425 more to reach his goal. Spot.us is West Coast-centric, so far, but there is no reason that Chicago-area reporters and residents who want to see a particular story covered couldn’t experiment with this site.

There are lots of newsrooms today that have room for reporters, but lack money to pay them. Dave Winer, developer of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software, former contributing editor at Wired Magazine, and research fellow at Harvard Law School suggests that those newsrooms offer space to people who want to write about their interest or passion and will do it for free, and work out a hybrid of professional and amateurs working together, some for monetary remuneration, and some for the new currencies of the 21st century, attention and reputation. Again, a radical suggestion on the face of it, but why not bring “consumers” into the mix when businesses are looking for alternatives to going out of business.

These experiments are pragmatic, not doomsaying or negative. In Chicago, a city that is a federation of 50-plus neighborhoods that might as well be small towns, any neighborhood might hiring its own journalist, or work with non-profit news sites like my own chicagotalks.org or windycitizen.com in a similar model, and to some extent with sites like chitowndailynews.com that seek to train reporters from neighborhoods.

The Chicago Journalism Townhall can be a place to consider these examples and new ideas that will power news and empower journalists as we evolve in our society’s information culture.

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