What is the future of journalism? I recently attended the annual Association of Alternative Newsmedia Convention in Nashville, Tenn., where this question was thoroughly discussed, hashed and rehashed, and commiserated about. I don't know what the future of journalism will be, but after the AAN Convention, I now know that I am not alone; most of these knowledgeable, brilliant experts do not know, either.
As you may know, the Internet has dramatically changed the media’s ability to finance journalism. In the past, advertising revenue funded journalism. In the new-media environment, there is significantly less money coming from ads. Newspaper classifieds are essentially gone, online ads pay a tiny fraction of what print ads pay, and TV and radio news shows have been reduced and replaced by lower cost entertainment shows. Less advertising revenue has led to massive reductions in news staffs across all media.
The Internet has allowed our journalism to reach out to, and inform, a larger audience. This is great. But publishers and editors hoped that we could develop a system whereby the Internet would provide revenue to support journalism. This has not happened.
At the recent AAN convention, like nearly all the conventions for the last 15 years, there was much discussion about the Web, about how newspapers can improve their online presences, about how in the very near future, we could make money doing journalism online. So much optimism, especially from the vendors selling the newest exciting major breakthrough in technology. But I wondered how much revenue my fellow newspaper publishers were receiving online. I discovered: very little. On average, about 5 percent.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.” And he said that even without experiencing our current Congress. Journalism plays an essential role in informing a community. It provides the critical information that enables communitywide dialogue. And reporters can generate much better journalism when it is their career, rather than a hobby.
The media has to find a way to support independent journalism. Perhaps the way that listeners support National Public Radio will become the model for other media. Or perhaps there will be a hybrid model, with support from advertising as well as donations from readers and nonprofits.
Last year, SN&R received a very generous grant from Sacramento Emergency Foodlink, which allowed us to hire an independent reporter to cover poverty issues. These issues deserved more focus, and this funding allowed us to improve our coverage.
We want to do more. We believe more extensive coverage of the environment, health care and investigative reportage would make a real difference. We have not had the advertising revenue to do this to the extent that we would like, but perhaps nontraditional funding is out there.
The idea makes me optimistic about the future of journalism.