If you look through the growing haze of daily downsizing, you can see a sun trying to rise.
While no single model of new journalism funding has yet emerged whole and succcesful, we can see common elements in experiments ranging from the just-announced ProPublica to the soon-to-launch MinnPost to the newer national politics site, The Politico, and the other locally oriented start-ups like the Northwest's Crosscut, Dallas' Pegasus News and Voice of San Diego.
Most important is the passion. Behind each is a set of people who believe that there are sizable groups of readers hungry for good, independent journalism. That conviction then leads them to assemble -- one way or the other, to start -- experienced journalists, turned out or turned off by the spirit-sapping downsizing now endemic to the trade. It's the in-between -- how to pay those want-to-be optimistic journalists to serve those want-to-know readers -- that's being worked through. The forms vary from foundation grants to membership fees to online ad revenues and to a sense that new funding will arrive as the public sees a new way to further inform itself. That last point is huge, I think. Readers do have the sense that something is being lost in the downturn traditional journalism faces, but they haven't been given an opportunity to find and support newer forms. That's changing.
First, consider the news that former Wall Street Journal top editor Paul Steiger is heading ProPublica. It's a new non-profit, dedicated to creating national quality investigative journalism. The funding will start paying for 24 journalists, and when's the last time you heard of more journalists being hired than you could count on two hands.
Here the funding comes from Herbert and Marion Sandler, who are providing $10 million a year to support the project (Slate's Jack Shafer on the Sandlers, their political and funding past, here). Steiger, with 16 WSJ Pulitzers in his portfolio, provides instant cred. He says ProPublica will pay essentially market wages. It will then place its stories to major media, though it sounds like a business model around syndication, licensing and advertising can use some work.
It's a great back-to-the-future model (I like it: ProPublica says public interest in a very retro, Romanesque fashion), a new kind of guild for the 21st century. If the world has unlocked the ad/editorial connection, this kind of model says, okay, let's concentrate on what we know how to do best: produce great journalism. Importantly, these will be experienced journalists, edited by top editors. It's light-years away from a world of neighborhood, user-gen community journalism -- though there's nothing wrong with that in the right context. But user-gen is no substitute for journalism.
This week also brought us a date for Joel Kramer's MinnPost start-up in the Twin Cities: Nov. 8. On that day, the once-proud Twin Cities journalism scene, bastion of competitive, above-average (located near Lake Wobegon after all) press work becomes another key exhibit in the emerging case being made for a new journalism.
Kramer says he is ahead on financial and community support targets:
- Money raised for the non-profit: $107,000 from 220 member-donors, beating MinnPost's projection of $75,000 for all of 2007, Kramer said. The biggest new local contribution -- $36,000 --comes from a local family foundation, the Martin and Brown Foundation. That brings the total start-up fund to more than $1.2 million, including the early donations from four local families, including Kramer's. That's a war-chest that will provide some breathing room. I asked Kramer whether family foundations will likely play a key role in funding operations like his, as enterpreneurs in other parts of the country look for funding. "Small family foundations are really the equivalent of individual donors," he says. Basically, Kramer says those seeking such support should work them the same way they do others -- "we do meetings, we do breakfasts" -- understanding that family foundations offer wealthy people tax advantages in making donations. One upside, he says, is that decisions can be made quickly, often by a single person.
In a note announcing the launch, MinnPost says it will try its own spin, on web-first, print-second publishing:
Lots of eyes with be on the MinnPost launch due it to deep roots in daily journalism and familiar faces it offers to local readers.
In addition to the website, MinnPost in Print will be a small-format newspaper published every weekday, containing highlights of the website's content. Readers can download it at the website and print it at home or office, or they can find a copy at selected high-traffic locations around town over the lunch hour. The locations will be announced at a later date.
Starting this week, we will publish at www.minnpost.com several editors' notes a week, previewing the kinds of content that will be found at the site and giving a real example of each format. By the time of the launch, readers will have a good idea what MinnPost.com and MinnPost in Print will offer, and how readers can engage with the site.