Presented at FTC: New players help strengthen news scene

Remarks prepared for delivery Dec. 1 at Federal Trade Commission workshop on “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?”

Today, anyone can aspire to be a news provider, and increasingly, people and organizations are deciding that’s exactly what they want to be. It’s this process — many voices instead of few — that is fundamentally transforming our news ecology.

The new players come in all sizes and forms, including the traditional for-profit model. I’ll focus here on nonprofits and also on non-news organizations that are quickly emerging as news producers. These newcomers are not making up for all the resources shed by mainstream media. But they are making up for a significant, perhaps growing, share. And in places like San Diego and New Haven, you can argue that a more robust news environment has already taken hold.

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It won’t be long before nearly every community has at least one news blog or site that reports on civic life. Sometimes, it’ll be a citizen’s passion; in others a paid staff of 1 or 5 or maybe 10 reporters. You can see the 10-reporter version at nonprofits like the Voice of San Diego or the St. Louis Beacon, as well as recent startups like the Texas Tribune and the Bay Area News Project.

Although even the largest community news site today has only a fraction of the news staff of their mainstream cousins, it’s noteworthy that most are targeting the heart of civic life – which is the territory we’re most worried about losing. The foundations and philanthropists subsidizing these operations may well be giving us a window into the future.

We’re also seeing rapid growth in the area of nonprofit investigative reporting – not just nationally but in places like Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Colorado and California, where new state investigative centers have bloomed.

There are many questions about these new nonprofits, not least whether they’ll be sustainable in the absence of a robust revenue model. But the examples of the Voice of San Diego, now in its fifth year, and the Center for Public Integrity, about to celebrate its 20th birthday, suggest sustainability is not impossible.

Other institutions like universities and their journalism schools are becoming increasingly important news providers. A key point here is that not all of the new players are news organizations. Foundations like the Kaiser Family Foundation and nonprofits like the Hechinger Institute have established news organizations devoted to their issues of interest — in the case of Kaiser, health; in Hechinger’s case, education. NGOs like Human Rights Watch have added news teams to disseminate the organization’s work. Labor unions in Chicago and California are bankrolling news sites that pay attention to worker issues.

Governments, too, will play a role. My USC colleague Geoff Cowan and I wrote this week that federal, state and local governments are directing well in excess of $1 billion a year in subsidies to commercial news media, continuing a trend that began even before the birth of our country. While these particular subsidies are almost certain to decline, new ones are already emerging.

In Los Angeles, county government recently hired an Los Angeles Times journalist to report on county issues. Why? Because it felt the public wasn’t learning about its issues from the local press. And because it now has the wherewithal to do something about it — namely a Web site full of county news.

Now, all of the examples I just cited about non-news organizations raise questions. Isn’t the Los Angeles county government site really public relations and/or propaganda? How can we be sure the Kaiser Family Foundation won’t let its views on health seep into its news coverage? Same question for Human Rights Watch and its research on rights abuses around the world. Won’t the sites paid for by labor give us a pro-worker point of view?

Just as we debate the point-of-view programming today on Fox or MSNBC, these are valid questions. So far, though, we can see some answers. In every case, the work of these organizations reads like legitimate journalism. So here’s probably another place we can glimpse the future: a universe in which many, many organizations — some with axes to grind — dive into a newly opened world of journalism. As news consumers we’ll have to determine whether we’re reading legitimate information we trust, or a crafty PR deception.

We don’t know yet whether a better informed citizenry will result. But with the dramatic expansion of news voices, and new hybrid models of journalism, there’s little doubt that the potential is there.

Thank you.