Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Another setback for non-profit news

A year ago, I wrote that David S. Bennahum might do for non-profit journalism what Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, did for hamburgers. But it has not worked out that way.

Bennahum’s disciplined approach to franchising a network of non-profit news ventures has faltered, casting further doubt on whether there is a viable model for filling the void in local coverage left by the meltdown of the mainstream media.

In an email today, Bennahum, the founder of the American News Network, said a 50% drop in revenues forced him to shut his Washington (DC) Independent and sharply cut staffing at the New Mexico Independent.

Bennahum said other sites would continue operating in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas, even though staffing has been cut in half in a year when revenues plunged to $2 million from $4 million.

Unlike other news non-profits, which tend to be one-off labors of love cobbled together by trial and error, there was a certain discipline to the systematic way the 42-year-old Bennahum raised some $13 million to launch local sites while paying himself $200,000 a year.

Rather than fixating on the journalism produced at his sites, Bennahum put his energy into managing them: Raising non-profit backing, making money from ongoing operations, monitoring costs, calibrating the metrics of his ventures and even taking tips from Google on how to raise the yield on his banner ads.

Bennahum’s stumble is the latest in a series of setbacks that cast doubt on the ability of non-profit news sites to achieve long-term sustainability through ongoing support from advertising, subscriptions or even the sale of organic vodka martinis.

In a landmark report last month, Jan Schaffer of J-Lab, who put $833,000 into 46 start-up news sites, candidly stated that “community news sites are not a business yet.” Shaffer reported that 31% of the ventures failed (see her comment below) and that the remainder are enduring in large part because the founders are working for little or no pay.

Non-profit news ventures face a flotilla of formidable challenges in the crummiest economy since the 1930s. They include, but are not limited to, raising start-up money, gaining visibility, building traffic and monetizing their audiences through ad sales, subscriptions, live events or any other lawful means that come to mind.

As if those challenges were not enough, they now face competition from the likes of AOL’s Patch (in 18 states plus the District of Columbia) and Yahoo’s still-pending local news effort. AOL and Yahoo not only possess superior funding but also billions of free page views on their existing sites to promote their new local news efforts.

Equipped with these unfair advantages, Patch and the local Yahoo sites have the potential to obliterate individual local grassroots efforts once they achieve cruising altitude.

In light of the above, it appears that the only non-profit news ventures with a hope of success are those that have attracted long-term, multimillion-dollar funding from individual multimillionaires. The list of the fortunate few is very short:

:: ProPublica, which gets $10 million a year from a single wealthy San Francisco family.

:: The Bay Citizen, which launched with $9 million in funding (including $5 million from a single wealthy San Francisco businessman).

:: The Texas Tribune, which has raised $6 million, including at least $1 million from a single wealthy Austin businessman.

In other words, it looks like the only way to succeed in grassroots journalism may be by finding a sugar daddy. And that's not very grassroots-y, is it?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Why deadlines don’t matter any more

This column originally appeared in the October issue of Editor & Publisher Magazine. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

It’s a good thing deadlines don’t matter any more, given the growing number of newspapers forced to go to press earlier in the day to accommodate the production of multiple papers at a single plant.

Although the idea of putting the morning paper to bed before dinner might seem at first to dangerously compromise the quality of the news report, earlier deadlines actually provide editors with a golden opportunity to reinforce the relevance of their publications by breaking their own local stories on their own time.

More on that in a moment. First, some background:

Luxuriously late deadlines are artifacts of the time when newspapers made so much money they could afford to build multimillion-dollar plants that operated only a few hours a day. With sales down and profits challenged, publishers across the U.S. are saving money by consolidating the production of multiple titles at single locations.

The need to sequence the printing of several publications in the same plant — and the time involved in hauling the finished product longer distances to their intended markets — is forcing publishers to back up deadlines ever earlier in the day. “We now have significant dailies being printed nearly 100 miles from their market centers,” says production consultant Alan Flaherty. “Roughly speaking, a mile of distance equals a minute of deadline.”

Since there is no apparent way around the economic imperatives forcing early closes, it’s time for newspapers to make lemonade out of this seeming lemon. Far from being a bad thing, this is an opportunity for the industry to take some long-overdue steps to improve its competitive position. Here’s what I mean:

Instead of chasing the national, international, entertainment and sports stories that ricochet around TV, radio and the Internet before ink can be put to paper, editors can escape the unavoidable latency of print by publishing unique, local stories that distinguish their products from all other competitors.

Instead of feebly trying to put a fresh gloss on yesterday’s news — or, worse, acting like an 18-hour-old story just happened — editors producing unique local coverage can make TV, radio and the web chase them. Turnabout, after all, is fair play.

By marketing themselves as the leading local news source in their communities, newspapers can reassert their value to readers and advertisers — and perhaps reclaim some of the alarming number of readers and advertising dollars they have lost in recent years.

This transformation will improve morale in every downsized newsroom and right-sized printing plant in the land, giving the shell-shocked survivors a refreshed sense of confidence in themselves and the future of their business.

Fortunately, this magical transformation requires little actual magic. But it does require editorial vision, strict discipline and considerable forward planning. And, remember, “plan” is not a four-letter word.

OK, I guess it is. But you know what I mean.

The process of capturing the local news agenda is simple: Pick stories of sweeping significance to your community, report them completely, tell them compellingly, pursue them relentlessly and play them effectively. Repeat as necessary.

That doesn’t mean every story has to be a 12-week investigative opus presented in a sprawling, six-part series replete with elaborate graphics and sidebars. It doesn’t necessarily require a multimedia extravaganza featuring videos, interactive maps and original documents exhumed from King Tut’s tomb.

While all those storytelling tools are valuable when appropriately deployed and skillfully executed, most readers will tell you that short and well-written stories are sweeter than long, self-important ones.

Rather than trying to conquer with quantity, newspapers should use their scarce resources to cover carefully selected matters that, well, matter. Instead of chronicling every routine meeting, press conference and police call, papers should stop sweating the small stuff so they can zero in on stories that:

:: Explain the consequences of official actions.

:: Expose social ills and civic wrongdoing.

:: Expand such quality-of-life coverage as education, environment and recreation.

:: Empower consumers with actionable ways to make or save money as they struggle through the bleakest economy in several generations.

:: Extol the people and places that make every town special.

:: Enhance community life by serving as a guide to organizations, events and activities.

:: Expound wisely, fairly and constructively on the editorial page on all manner of local issues. Be sure to solicit opinions from qualified spokespeople to cover the other side.

While this recipe can help newspapers make lemonade, the converse also applies: Early deadlines mixed with desultory coverage will be downright toxic. Please mix your cocktail responsibly.

(c) 2010 Editor & Publisher

Thursday, November 04, 2010

How the press let us get in the mess we’re in

Barack Obama’s failure to focus on the economy is being rightfully blamed for the resounding repudiation he suffered in the mid-term elections, but the national press deserves a whack upside the head for helping to let it happen.

The looming battle over national policy in the new Congress matters to everyone, regardless of political persuasion. Unless and until Washington gets its act together, the economy almost surely will continue to founder, spreading hardship and anger across the land. And that will make the United States an unpleasant place to live and do business.

Although a vigilant press is supposed to help alert society to such dangers before they advance as far as they have gotten today, the dominant media failed miserably in the last two years to rivet proper attention on a historic economic cataclysm that has sapped the wealth and confidence of millions of Americans.

Why did the press do so little so late? Here is a stab at the answer:

Captivated by the prospect of a new kind of president after eight years of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, unaccomplished military missions and an economy artificially levitated by phony home loans, the mainstream media behaved more like lapdogs than watchdogs when Obama entered the White House.

In the thrall of the brainy and self-assured Obama, the press largely failed to ask the hard-edged questions that could have sharpened the president’s understanding of the terrifyingly deteriorating economy; sharpened his agenda by emphasizing jobs, jobs and more jobs, and sharpened his elbows for combat with the tough political customers whose singular – and brilliantly fulfilled – agenda was to make the president look like he was out of touch with the growing pain on Main Street.

Instead, it was largely business as usual for the media, as journalists busied themselves immediately after the 2008 election with such inside-baseball matters as picking the winners and losers in the new Obama power structure. Once the president took office, the myopic press stuck to covering the inside-the-Beltway story of the day – health care, Afghanistan, Supreme Court picks – instead of zeroing in on the things that really mattered to all but the very wealthiest Americans.

Things like: Will I keep my job? What will I do if I get fired? Can I keep my house? Will I be able to send my kids to college? How can I afford to retire?

The failure of the press to grasp the rising primal fear in the land is at once bitterly ironic and manifestly inexplicable, given that most news organizations were suffering through the same wrenching recalibration that has resulted in nearly double-digit national unemployment – and an under-employment rate that some analysts believe afflicts more than a fifth of the population.

How did the press miss the visceral significance of the economic meltdown, which in all likelihood will be the biggest – and furthest reaching – story of our generation? Here are three thoughts:

1. The members of the national press, who largely are domiciled in Washington and New York, failed to grasp the fear and loathing on Main Street because they were so comfortable in their six- and seven-figure sinecures that the economic catastrophe was nothing more to them than a series of abstract government statistics and occasional, disembodied sound bites. They were so far removed from reality that they couldn’t feel – much less adequately express – the nation’s mounting pain.

2. Living in nearly as much of a bubble as the president, the national media confined their reporting to a narrowly constrained group of current or wannabe government officials. Even on a broadcast as high in caliber as the PBS Nightly News, 82% of the news sources are white, 67% are men and 44% are current or former government officials, according to a recent survey by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a non-partisan and non-profit media watchdog. When fat and happy people interview other fat and happy people, they get the idea that everyone is fat and happy.

3. In sunnier times for the newspaper business, ambitious reporters sent to the capital from the provincial press occasionally pierced the bubble surrounding the Beltway by covering topics that weren’t on the official agenda. But those days have disappeared just as surely as the reporters themselves. As of early 2009, newspapers in only 23 states had full-time correspondents assigned to the nation’s capital, according to a sobering report by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Things almost surely have not gotten better since then.

If the above theories begin to explain the failure of the national media, what happened to the work-a-day journalists toiling across the land? Like it or not, they had a front-row view of the growing number of shuttered factories, bankrupt stores, empty car lots and hastily abandoned housing developments. Were they too busy or too shell-shocked to give ample insight into the carnage before them? Or were we just not listening?

As the undoing of the Obama administration unfolded over the last two years, the smartest journalist in the room proved to be a man who is not an official journalist at all. Rather, it was Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who writes an op-ed column for the New York Times.

Three days after Obama was elected, Krugman said in a column on Nov. 10, 2008: “My advice to the Obama people is to figure out how much help they think the economy needs, then add 50%. It’s much better, in a depressed economy, to err on the side of too much stimulus than on the side of too little.”

Unfortunately for Obama and the rest of us, the president failed to heed Krugman’s advice. Now, it won’t be easy to turn things around.

The virulent anti-Washington, anti-deficit and anti-tax sentiment that suffuse the political atmosphere almost certainly guarantee that politicians on both sides of the aisle will be far too worried about saving their skins in 2012 than to vote in favor of the stimulus prescribed 24 months ago by the wise Dr. Krugman.

Now that this election has hardened positions and put progressive forces on the defensive, it is going to take a sea change to return civility and reason to the national political discourse. Unless a miracle occurs to make that possible, we may be embarked on a long, grinding and demoralizing epoch of malaise.

The press is not entirely to blame for all this. But its dereliction sure contributed to the mess we are in.