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Can journalism schools oversee the public-interest news organizations of the future? Yes, with caveats.
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Can journalism schools oversee the public-interest news organizations of the future? Yes, with caveats.

I met Len Sellers in the mid-1990s, when he was still a journalism professor at San Francisco State University, where, among other things, he taught a newswriting course that was generally considered make-or-break for aspiring journalists, a hard-core exercise in using public documents and other reliable information sources to write solid news reports. By all accounts I've heard, the course was quite old-school: Misspell a name in a story, and you get an F. Len also taught investigative reporting and co-authored an investigative reporting textbook.

At the same time, he was an early believer in the possibilities of online journalism, helping to found SFSU's Journalism Multimedia Laboratory. When I was introduced to him, in addition to teaching journalism he was running an early Web-design-and-strategy startup, Plastic, in the part of San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood then called Multimedia Gulch. (How quickly the cutting edge fades to quaintness...) Plastic was unfortunately renamed — a company name that references The Graduate really ought never be changed — and bought by the then-ultra-cool Web consultancy Razorfish, which was so cool that it bragged about only taking on work it found interesting. Len ran Razorfish's San Francisco office, eventually becoming the firm's executive vice president over the Asia/Pacific area. Then came the deluge, otherwise known as the dot-com crash.


Now Len is CEO of Hammer2Anvil, a "venture catalyst" firm that advises early-stage technology companies, helping them create business plans, get funding and manage themselves into viable businesses. Much of his recent work has involved social-media concepts.

At the start of March, the world of daily newspapers seemed to be collapsing in on itself, sucked into a black hole created by the disaggregating, information-wants-to-be free ethos of the Internet and supercharged by a worldwide recession that has sharply reduced the advertising on which newspapers depend. After 150 years of publication, the Rocky Mountain Newsclosed, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was going to online-only publication and the San Francisco Chronicle announced its unions would have to accept drastic cost cuts, or it would put itself up for sale and/or close shop. These cataclysmic events came in an environment of general shrinkage and evisceration of public-interest journalism across the country, particularly at the local and regional level. Not every metropolitan daily newspaper is losing $1 million a week, as the Chronicle has been, but all are looking at reduced revenues — and a future that seems to include nothing but lower and lower revenues — and cutting expenses and journalists in waves.

The journalism blogs have been alive with discussion of the problem of sustaining public-interest news — that Fourth Estate, watchdog function of the press — in a converged environment that simply doesn't want to pay for news. (The Columbia Journalism Review's always pithy and intelligent Megan Garber provided a roundup that gives a flavor of the discussion.) But the collapse of quality journalism isn't just a concern for journalists; it's a developing disaster in terms of accountability in government and the control of official corruption. Because Len is the genuinely rare media bird — deeply experienced in traditional public-interest journalism and new media, with an academic background to boot (doctorate in communications from Stanford) — I asked him to help me look at possible ways to ensure the continuation of journalism worthy of the First Amendment.

John Mecklin: As the Rocky Mountain News died and the San Francisco Chronicle went on life support, you went on TV in the Bay Area and more or less said all print daily newspapers are the walking dead, and everyone should just accept that economic fact and move on. But move on to what? Outside of a few outlier sites — Talking Points Memo and to some degree — there doesn't seem to be much in the way of quality Web journalism that's operating in the for-profit sector. People just don't seem willing to pay for high-end journalism in the digital realm. In fact, they don't seem willing to pay for almost all news on the Internet. Isn't it just inevitable that public-interest newsgathering and dissemination will become largely a nonprofit undertaking (the editor of the nonprofit public-interest magazine wrote with a sly smile)?

Len Sellers: There are two questions asked at every "future of journalism" conference, panel, speech and blog:

  • How do we protect journalism (objectivity, fairness, First Amendment, editorial judgment, Fourth Estate, guardian of democracy, trained observers, sourced content, yada yada)?
  • How do we get people to pay for journalism (subscriptions, micropayments, advertising, foundations, government, yada yada)?

No conference, panel, speech or blog has answered either question. Lots of hand-wringing, followed by guesses about metamorphic models:

Print and online symbiosis. Online advertising is growing and one day will provide sufficient revenue to pay newsroom costs. Nope. Top online sites, like the S.F. Chronicle's, provide only 10 percent of ad revenues required for the current newsroom. The mythical tipping point is decades away.

Online only. The silly "future" conference held by the Christian Science Monitor keeps referring to the Monitor's "bold move" into this realm. Yeah, well, if supported by the church, it can move in any direction it wants. But if it has to cover the financial nut of the move, that's a different story. And highly unlikely. They too will smack into the content-is-free wall, while realizing editorial is no cheaper to produce for the Web.

Trim down to specialty journalism.The Wall Street Journal will service the business community, online and off, which will charge off the cost. Community newspapers will return in those areas where citizens are willing to pay a premium and advertisers want access to their demographics. (Nearly every upscale community already has its own newspaper.) The New York Times will survive because of what it is and who it serves. There will be no second player in this market. Newspapers become more like special-interest magazines — think alternative press.

Outsource everything but the managing editor. Hearst just went to an online writing community named Helium and put everything out to bid. "Executives say the deal will enable its newspapers to provide local content at a lower cost than using staff resources," an article in the Boston Business Journalnotes. The stories are put OUT TO BID.

So let's get back to the two questions. Objectivity was a concept that came into being with The Associated Press, which had to serve a spectrum of newspapers. It was refined during the Civil War. It's not that old a concept and far from universal. Does anyone care? Are we just talking to ourselves?

Do we use NPR as a model? Listenership is way up. It's successful. And it doesn't have to pay for itself. Let me think about this tomorrow. I have to take Connie out to dinner.

JM: I find the whole "objectivity" argument tiresome and, often, disingenuous. When they argue effusively for objectivity, most journalists are actually (and sometimes unconsciously) referring to a daily-newspaper, pyramid-style, "he-said, she-said" form of reportage that is, actually, just a combination of crappy research and crappy writing. I think fairness with verve should be the aim, and the analytical takeouts of The New Yorker, Harper's, the Atlantic and The New York Times the model. Fairness with verve can work on the Web, too, as TPMmuckraker shows.

So we're really back to figuring out how to pay for fairness and verve in a converged environment. I know what I'm suggesting opens a case of political worm cans, but in this multi-platform age, shouldn't PBS and NPR be merged into a Public Media System (I know, the acronym is unfortunate) that could provide quality public-interest news in all formats save print? And couldn't this merged system then encourage local public radio and TV outlets to merge and provide their communities with quality radio, TV and Web news? I don't mean to condescend, but in most American cities, it wouldn't take much in terms of resources to replace and even outdo the public-interest reporting of the current daily newspaper.

LS: I was just sent an excellent article in The New Republic, "Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption)" by Paul Starr, the Stuart Professor of Communications and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. At the end, Starr discusses the options of nonprofits providing the kind of reporting that will disappear with the metro dailies. PBS won't work, he says, because it's too susceptible to government pressure. He seems to recommend, and I would agree if that's what he's doing, a relationship between private nonprofit and ongoing media, whether old or new.

In my mind, I see this: If it doesn't outright die, the metro daily will shrink into "hyperlocal" coverage but with severely limited resources and no depth reporting or dealing with complex issues. The metros will depend on a third party to provide investigative work. The structure of the third party: neutral (and therefore credible and meeting the basic journalistic requirements); nonprofit (supported by foundations, individual donors); bringing together professionals, volunteers (the new "citizen journalist" if you will); and with any combination of print, video and audio. The material will be vetted by professionals according to high standards for accuracy, fairness, etc.

The Center for Investigative Reporting just did this with the Chauncey Bailey Project, using working reporters, retired reporters, The Oakland Tribune, KTVU, etc., to investigate the assassination of Bailey, editor of The Oakland Post. The Oakland Police Department's conflict of interest in investigating the case probably wouldn't have been exposed otherwise.

The Starr article rather turgidly points out that as newspapers shrink, corruption is likely to expand. This is the danger to the democracy. Bloggers will never be able to defend the republic the way real reporters and editors can.

Could you envision something like the Pew Foundation with a "depth reporting" office in each state capitol?

JM: I don't see a whole lot of engaging public-interest journalism emerging from a Pew Depth Reporter. The rationale behind my sarcasm: The best public-interest journalism is, at base, subversive. It embarrasses the powerful and sometimes puts them in jail. The best journalists are, at bottom, latrine-stirrers; they enjoy unearthing the sordid fix, the sleazy deal, the hidden bribe. And if the latrine-stirrers are to be energized in their work — to believe they are, truly, on a mission — they must feel a direct connection with the ownership of the news organization. Even when they are wealthy people who would otherwise be seen as part of the "establishment," the best media owners secretly thrive on exposing hypocrites. They believe in turning over the apple cart to find the rotten fruit at the bottom of the pile. Though more presentable to society, they are as subversive as their reporters.

I am not saying anything the least bit bad about Pew, per se, when I say that the large philanthropic organizations I have known simply don't have the culture that enjoys subversion or easily withstands the pressures regularly applied to the leaders of an aggressive news organization. When a philanthropy produces staid scholarly studies of this or that issue, those pressures are relatively small. When the Pew Depth Reporter starts to explain exactly why and how the governor is a crook — again and again and again — the pressure becomes instantly, exponentially greater. (Just ask Katherine Graham's breast.)

So I think the country's major national and regional foundations need to formally recognize that public-interest journalism is exactly what Paul Starr labeled it, a public good, and to begin allocating significant percentages of their budgets toward the support of same. But they shouldn't go into the news business themselves; they should publicize their new support and invite applications for long-term funding.

But then things get tricky. How do these major foundations decide what nonprofit news organizations they will fund? Most investigative journalists aren't constitutionally suited to the bureaucratic rigmarole that surrounds most grant-making processes.

I've written about the possibility that the country's major journalism schools could become home to converged news organizations specializing in public-interest journalism, some produced in cooperation with existing news organizations. (See Lowell Bergman's operation at UC Berkeley for a possible model. And there's also News21, a collaboration among journalism students, their professors and technical specialists at five major universities, funded by the Knight and Carnegie foundations and aimed at in-depth multimedia journalism.)

But you're the one with the long history as a journalism professor. Because of the collapse of for-profit news, the country's major journalism schools have become home to a wealth of real talent. Should the country's major journalism schools be creating news organizations that serve the general public, directly and/or in partnership with existing outlets? Should the nation's major philanthropies be funding those university-based news operations on a multiyear basis?

Or have I just forgotten what it's like to be in college?

LS: It has long been my contention that investigative reporters are afflicted with a sense of moral outrage. They are the kind of people that get pissed off when someone kicks a puppy. I have argued that most investigative reporting is the dull, eye-fatiguing, brain-numbing poring over of documents, a far cry from the secret night meetings in car parks. And it is the anger over bad people doing bad things that keep such reporters going when most people would back off and shrug.

The ownership of a news organization is often irrelevant to these reporters. Yes, the organization had to commit — Newsday sending Bob Greene to trace "The Heroin Trail" from Turkey to Long Island; the Chicago Sun-Times buying a bar to nail crooked city inspectors — but I also remember Sy Hersh going nuts when The New York Times wouldn't get down on the sawdust floor of investigative reporting, and Woodstein was kicking his butt. I knew reporters who committed their own time and money to keep pursuing a story; the only time reporters threatened to go elsewhere was when they thought the story might not get published.

I don't think it matters if you work for The Times-Picayune or The Oakland Tribune. When it does matter is when editors won't kick you loose to follow a story. And when a stripped-down newsroom has no resources, nobody gets kicked loose. Newspapers had good families (Graham) and bad (Hearst), good corporations (Knight-Ridder) and bad (Gannett). It wasn't the ownership structure, it was the operating philosophy. But the ability to choose a philosophy is pretty much gone, and newsrooms can no longer justify the investment when staffs are often half the size they were mere years ago. Maybe we can still look to a small handful of "national thunderers," but for nearly all the daily newspapers, the days of investigative reporting are over.

So we turn to nonprofits for funding. Can the "Innocence Project" serve as a model? That is mainly staffed by students, which you suggest could be a part of journalism schools being structured to fill society's increasing need for watchdogs. Would a university's built-in ability to handle grants and foundation funds dovetail with a News21 devoted to regional investigative reporting?

There are downsides. Most students are not too bright. I say that after 27 years as a professor. Smart, disciplined students are very much a rarity. And universities are bureaucracies riddled with regulations, egos, audits, jealousies and ambitions. Think MGM meets the DMV. So it wouldn't be easy. Safeguards would have to be built into the very framework.

JM: I agree vis-à-vis outrage; it's the fuel for investigative reporters who perform the brain-numbing paper chase that constitutes most of my stirring-the-latrine image. And I have certainly seen my share of dedicated reporters trying to do in-depth/investigative work under clueless, unsympathetic and/or hostile management — and sometimes even succeeding. But I disagree on the ownership question, because ownership, in my experience, sets the tone; when the top people in an organization value enterprise journalism, the whole chain of command tends to get the word, and vice versa. Yes, some enterprise journalism gets done at Gannett papers. But take a look at what The Des Moines Register and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal used to be, and what they have been for the last decade.

During the decades when owning a major metro daily was truly a license to print money, there was a dirty little secret: Most metro dailies spent shockingly small amounts on enterprise/investigative/in-depth journalism. Clearly, daily newspapers have less money to spend on everything now and will have even less in the future. So I think given their lackluster performance in good economic times, it's obvious that a new future for public-interest journalism at the city/regional level needs to be built outside of existing newspapers. Your "Innocence Project" analogy is a reasonable one; collaboration among professors, lawyers and students has produced some astounding results. But let me throw out another: the teaching hospital. Major medical universities have long been allied with hospitals, using high-quality faculty and consulting physicians to train new doctors — and provide a lot of patients with high-quality medical care.

I think the major journalism schools should actively seek foundation support to create stand-alone public-interest news organizations that hire great journalists to report and edit the news and teach new journalists to do the same. Students would be part of the operation, but only the best would be taken on, and they would have subordinate roles, working with and being supervised by experienced reporters and editors.

I understand your concern that a j-school-based effort would unleash the worst bureaucratic and power-mongering tendencies of academic politics on an unsuspecting world. I share the concern. I also think that there's a pretty large gap between the five-to-10 best j-schools and all the rest. I'm comfortable with, say, Nick Lemann setting up a significant regional public-interest journalism enterprise overseen at distance by Columbia; I'm not sure all that many other journalism and "communication" schools have the faculty or student talent to pull it off.

But I'd sure like to read/view the new multimedia outlet devoted solely to local and regional public-interest news and investigative reporting, funded fully for 10 years by five or six major foundations; staffed robustly with experienced investigative reporters and editors who like to work with aspiring reporters and editors; and overseen in the background by, say, the UC Berkeley graduate school of journalism.

It might wind up being a bureaucratic, egomaniacal failure. On the other hand, it might break some great stories, develop a following and over four or five years become such a familiar, useful and even central part of Bay Area public life that it seems as if it had always been there.

Before we end this dialogue completely on a nonprofit-is-the-future note, I wondered what you make of the Kindle and Hearst's announcement that it will introduce a magazine-sized electronic reader this year. I know during the dot-com boom, you were in on some early consumer research into this kind of a reading/viewing tablet; the results, as I remember, seemed positive.

Is there any reason to hope that cell-phone-fed, digital tablets can become popular enough to provide a revenue stream that could support for-profit newspapers and magazines? Isn't the billing method — small charges automatically appended to your cell phone bill — unobtrusive enough that most people wouldn't mind paying? Or are these just the fantasies of an aging journalist who hopes all information doesn't just want to be free?

LS: I really like the idea of a local/regional depth-reporting center, funded for a decade, run by pros, staffed with student interns, connected to a top-tier journalism school. Wow, what a concept. I agree that if such centers are successful, they will easily become a part of the social/political fabric and accepted as the norm.

But back to the daily newspaper. Where is the bottom line that will allow them to stay around? The e-reader is an interesting thought, although tinged a bit with desperation. (When was the last time Hearst ever made the right move?)

Advantages: Production cost would now be only staff and IT. No more giant rolls of newsprint, million-dollar presses, truck rolls, racks and plastic baggies on the front porch. More than half the cost of putting a newspaper in the hands of a reader disappears. It can be updated as quickly as a Web site. (Maybe a return to one- to five-star editions?) Dedicated, portable platform. Customizable. (More international news, no advice columns, limit sports to football, etc.) Provides a base for multimedia advertising. A monthly subscription cost can be reasonable and generally accepted.

It's not that much of a shift from a newspaper subscription and magazine renewals to paying for a specific editorial entity — a daily newspaper or Miller-McCune. That's why micro-payments won't work — no one has paid 10 cents per article while reading a newspaper, and that's a psychological adjustment that just won't be made. Take it online where articles are read as discrete units, and you're now in the information-is-free environment. I would argue that moving the model sideways will work. The Chronicle debits my credit card for the paper brought to my front door every morning. If it does the same thing for a continually refreshed e-tablet on my kitchen table, I've only changed the device, not the system.

Disadvantages: Technology is still spotty and may be for some time. Competing platforms may reduce general acceptance. Still two-dimensional; that is, without video. Power problems. Product life unknown. Very high unit cost. (However, VCRs cost a grand at introduction, as did the first digital watches. And the fact that Kindle has sold 500,000 units already is not only a surprise, it's an indication of an untapped market.)

Can newspapers continue via a plastic sheet of e-reader? Only if there is an advertising base. It always comes down to the numbers. How do you make more money than you spend? Subscription alone will not do it.

There is a break point where people stop signing up. But mass media has always sold audience to advertisers — that's actually the business media are in. Will advertisers migrate to this platform?

Well, if the demographics are accurate, the usage monitored and measured, and the CPM makes sense, then yes, it can be done. So maybe there is hope. And a reason to keep journalism schools.

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