Whether through paywalls, charities, or member programs, local news outlets search for a successful model in the digital era
Want an insider’s view on the State of Journalism in the age of the internet? Okay: Worry! Confusion! But also excitement, kind of! From publishers to editors to reporters, we don’t know what exactly to do. Print seems all but dead. Online advertising is a cruel mirage. Paywalls aren’t a cure-all. And does the public even want actual journalism, anyway? After all, viral Russian fake news on Facebook helped elect a president! Wail! Gnash!
That’s a dramatization, admittedly — but not a complete distortion. It’s no secret that the internet has caused great upheaval in the way we produce and consume news. What you might be surprised to learn, though, is the number of organizations, start-ups, think tanks, and media companies trying to formulate a model of economically sustainable journalism in the 21st century — many of which are in our own backyard. Actually, they’re kind of a microcosm of what might be called The Great Big Journalism Project.
The latest entry is the Nevada Current (nevadacurrent.com), which launched in June. It’s edited by Hugh Jackson, a veteran Vegas journalist, editor, and commentator. (Jackson has written for Desert Companion.) With a staff comprising seasoned journalist Dana Gentry and three young reporters, Nevada Current is a blog-style churn of progressive news and opinion that covers everything from homelesness to unions to immigration, all in the context of economic inequality.
“I’ve always thought my role in Las Vegas was to kind of explore things the mainstream media doesn’t explore with respect to economics and jobs, the texture of the economy, the ways the private sector policies and public sector policies get in the way of people and make life harder than it needs to be for them. That emphasis hasn’t been very strongly followed here,” says Jackson. “The economics coverage here is all about growth, growth, growth. Very rarely is there much of a discussion of how the benefits of economic growth are distributed.”
The Nevada Current is part of a planned network of similar policy-oriented websites directed by Chris Fitzsimon, founder of North Carolina’s news website NC Policy Watch. So far, Fitzsimon has launched two of them, the Nevada Current and the Florida Phoenix.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about the Current is how it’s funded. There are no ads. You can’t pay for a subscription or directly donate money. It’s funded through a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit charity called The Hopewell Fund that bankrolls “social-change projects.” And who funds Hopewell? Fitzsimon says he doesn’t know. Jackson says he only knows the name of one donor, but declines to identify them. However, Jackson says he’s been promised complete editorial independence.
“I’ve asked for transparency from these folks, they decided not to (reveal the funders’ identities). I weighed it, and I thought, I don’t like it, but I do like the idea of hiring reporters and covering stuff that doesn’t get covered from angles that don’t get looked at. I will swallow my discomfort, and I will cling bitterly to my editorial independence.” It’s a compromise he can live with, given the alternative is not to publish. (Hopewell Fund Board Chair Lee Bodner writes in an email, “We leave it up to individual donors to determine whether they want to disclose their role in a particular project.”)
Fitzsimon brushes off any concerns about the anonymity of the site’s donors. “I think the credibility of the site will be determined by the quality of the reporting by the journalists. In an ideal world, we’re hoping this will turn into a thriving, sustainable, Nevada-based, Nevada donor-funded model.”
Meanwhile, the Nevada Independent, political pundit Jon Ralston’s news site, will be two years old in January. If the Current’s donor list is opaque, the Independent is almost obsessively transparent about its funding sources, listing them by name on its website. The Independent is aiming to become sustainable through a membership model similar to public radio’s, with big corporate donations and grants atop a broad base of individual donors. At the moment, though, the Independent’s revenue mix is top-heavy with corporate donors like Switch ($400,000) and MGM Resorts International ($350,000). Reliance on a few big key donors isn’t very stable. What if they pull out?
“Though they could sustain us in the longer term, we don’t want to rely on major corporate donors,” Ralston says. “We need more sustaining members at the bottom — the $10, $50, $100 people who commit over the long haul.” Ralston is hoping to get that membership percentage to 20 to 25 percent, as well as increase revenue from events and grants. “Becoming sustainable with a more balanced revenue package is something we hope to get to by the end of our third year.” Another wrinkle of his model is that Ralston, the site’s editor, is also the main fundraiser. He’s conscious of the perceived conflicts of interest this might cause, but he reasons that his name and reputation as a trusted political reporter are central to the brand, so him fundraising personally is a necessary evil. “There are hints of (concern) here and there in the community, but the only people who really fuel it are campaign trolls who don’t like what I’ve written in the past,” he says. “Everything’s a tradeoff, but our work ultimately speaks for itself.”
Donor/membership models like the Independent’s (and — plug — Nevada Public Radio’s) seem to hold the most promise for economic sustainability, according to experts.
“But membership should be more about than just asking your audience for money,” says Emily Goligoski, research director at the Membership Puzzle Project, a partnership between New York University and Dutch news organization De Correspondent. The project studies journalism funding models and publishes its findings at membershippuzzle.org. “It’s important that membership is a social contract, which is rooted in the idea of showing your audience the impact of your work and being clear about the costs of doing that work. It says this information, analysis, and expertise took time and money — and hopefully collaboration with readers — to bring to publication, and it’s a service worth paying for.”
“Collaboration with readers” is another piece of the puzzle. Goligoski says news organizations need to expand their idea of donations to include time, energy, and expertise. “We’re encouraging platforms to think about accepting these kind of contributions in lieu of money,” she says. For instance, The Ferret, an investigative journalism co-op in Scotland, enlists volunteers for fact-checking nights. Other member-based news sites put them to work as comment moderators or data crunchers. “Media platforms today need to create a new continuum for their audience of what it means to participate,” she says.
If the membership model has good prospects, the jury’s still out on paywalls. The research shows that it works for big names such as The New York Times and The Atlantic, and focused brands such as The Wall Street Journal and Wired. But it’s less clear whether small, local publications can make it part of their revenue mix.
The Las Vegas Sun put up a paywall in January. It has two tiers, $8.99 a month and $15.99 a month; among other things, the latter includes entry to quarterly networking events with Greenspun Media Group editors and publishers — another revenue-generating idea news organizations are experimenting with. Publisher Brian Greenspun didn’t divulge specific numbers, but writes in an email: “Our paywall is growing, not as fast as we would like, but growing still. The nature of paywalls is such that at some point, the subscription revenues should be able to offset a significant share of the newsroom and editorial costs related to producing the content for the websites. We are not there yet.”
Partnerships between media organizations are another part of the answer to sustainability. Working together doesn’t just create efficiencies, but it allows both partners to reach new audiences.
Tom Axtell, general manager of Vegas PBS, points to PBS’ jointly produced investigations from Frontline and ProPublica. “Partnerships like that give us the power to magnify the impact of stories, and those partnerships are part of a different philosophical approach than you would see at a commercial station.”
As media outlets continue to try, fail, tweak, and try again, it all gives new meaning to “breaking news.”