Alum and students packed Neff Auditorium to hear some highly respected traditional jurnos who’ve made the leap into the Webcentric world with sites such as ProPublica, MinnPost, the St. Louis Beacon, and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Good on ’em. Good on ’em. But they’re not going to make it if they keep
on with a we-talk, you-listen approach. Or a great-journalism-is-all-you-need approach. Or a linear, text-centric newspaper/magazine content approach. (A shining light: the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting’s multimedia story — Hope: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica.) Or a been-there-done-that approach to covering their beats (i.e., no context or continuity). And where are the links, the resources, the backgrounders, the databases, the solution-oriented approaches to providing USEFUL information for their communities? I’m crossing my fingers that they’ll move in those directions FAST FAST FAST. We’ll be a lot better off if good, solid journalism survives. And these folks have soooo much good experience and understanding to contribute to Webcentric journalism. But their sites show that they don’t yet understand the medium. Here’s what they said:
Jon Sawyer from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, developed an interesting
partnership with YouTube called Project Report. PCCP’s approach is to partner with as many organizations as possible. Already it’s among the top dozen organizations that are producing international enterprise content. There’s been too much debate and hand-wringing over the state of newspapers, says Sawyer. ” If more of us get back to what we do best, which is journalism….I think we’re going to find that there is a very bright future.
Paul Steiger, editor-in-chief, ProPublica: “It’s time to move on. Those models are broken,” says the former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal. He left the WSJ on New Year’s Eve, and a few days later, walked into 10,000 square feet of naked space in downtown Manhattan. He received 1300 resumes — “that was a reflection of the state of the business” more than people really wanting to work for a startup. “We could’ve filled the room with Pulitzer Prize winners.” They’ve finished hiring; have a range of ages, 24-61. Old foggies learning from young folks; they’re learning from us.
We’re focused on investigative reporting. That’s one of the most expensive things a news organization does, and it’s where cutbacks are occurring. “We look for abuses of power and do sustained reporting that demonstrate there are abuses of power,” he says. “We bring those stories to existing platformsand our own Web site.” He places stories with organizations where each story will have the biggest impact.
They’ve done three major stories since the time the organization went live this summer. One they took to TV show “60 Minutes.” That story was an expose on the U.S. government’s mismanagement of an Arab language TV network it was building in Mideast as a competitor to Al Jazeera; the story’s inspired Congressional hearings. Another story was more local: new methods of drilling for natural gas that are cost effective, but pose a threat to the water table. They took to the biggest newspaper in upstate New York and to local NPR station. These circulations are smaller, but targeted, and made an impact in Albany, where legislature and governor were considering allowing new drilling methods in NY state. Overseas bribery was the next story, about the head of a Halliburton unit who accepted a seven-year jail sentence. As an experiment, they took the story to MSN. Put on business page, where it did well and was promoted to front page. The story received 850,000 hits in two days. What all of this says is that there’s a market for investigative journalism. Pick avenues, adjust model as go ahead, you can have impact.
Margie Freivogel, editor of the St. Louis Beacon. She thinks that the Web is a far superior journalistic tool to newpapers and TV. [ReJurno: Right on!] Maybe it’s midnight for the traditional media, but she believes there’s plenty of opportunity to shape it. She assumed that new media was a crowded and established field, but she thinks it’s more like TV was in the early 50s: still finding its nature as its own unique medium. “News that matters” is the Beacon’s model. “We provide original reporting of the kind that is being squeezed out of traditional media,” she says. The Beacon partners with KETC, a local TV station. The Beacon has a staff of 15 and full and part-time, plus freelancers. About 100 people have donated money, from small donations to a large $1 million challenge grant. A few years ago, she and others tried to buy the St. Louis Post Dispatch. She’s glad that didn’t work out.
Joel Kramer, publisher of MinnPost.com. The site’s 10 months old. They aim to do serious local journalism. Knight gave $250,000 to get MinnPost started. What interested Knight is that MinnPost had many local donors giving up to six figures, and that it was a publisher who was starting the organization, not an editor. Kramer talked about business models. Nonprofits have three types of business models: income from foundations and very large donors; from government contracts; and those that generate a revenue stream, from donors and investors who don’t want return on money. MinnPost is aiming to be in this last category. They want to have a sustainable biz model, based on operations, not large donors. The goal is to get there by 2011. Big individual and foundations money is start-up capital. In 2011, Kramer wants 75 percent revenue from advertising and corporate sponsorship, and 25 percent from donors who give the same way they give to public radio. “Over time I’ve modified my view,” says Kramer. “It may be more like 50-50. The donor side is going better than the advertising side. Advertising is a challenge.” They’re not getting as much advertising as they planned, and they’re exploring going beyond banner ads. They’re doing better on membership. Last month, they passed 1,000 donors. Minnesota Public Radio has 94,000 donors.
Nonprofit journalism sites funded by foundations or donors are not going to focus on traffic, but impact. “That’s good, but if you adopt a model like the one we have, we have to be very focused on traffic,” says Kramer. That attracts advertisers and donors. If you focus on traffic, you learn things about the traffic, and the difference between what fulfills public purpose and what brings traffic. Their brochure says no Brittany, no Paris, no Lindsay. They don’t put sex in their headlines. Also, Kramer’s learned that MinnPost doesn’t get the same traffic return on one big story as it does on 20 stories. And certain stories attract a lot of attention. For example, anything that MinnPost runs about Ron Paul gets a lot of traffic. That’s because Ron Paul fans read everything on Web about Ron Paul. Of MinnPost’s five most trafficked stories, three had something to do with YouTube. MinnPost did a story about Dancing with the Universe, a popular YouTube video. The woman who sang the song is a student at a Minneapolis school.
I think we have a lot of challenges. One of the reasons that the mainstream media is struggling is advertising. As you switch to online, you save money because no presses and print, but ad rates are brutal. This is no picnic. It is very difficult to make money on the Web with local news. We’ll be grateful and lucky to get to break even point.
Elizabeth Osder, the Osder Group. Osder’s been consulting with some of the people on the panel. She says that there’s an awful lot of content on the Web. People who are using inexpensive
software to tell stories, to find people other people share experience, start conversation in their communities. This is a very early entrepreneurial time. We are moving from newspapers to the information business, just as railroads moved from trains into transportation.
Questions from the audience: To MinnPost’s Kramer: What are you paying journalists? Kramer’s answer: They’re making much less than they did in traditional media. MinnPost is lucky that they have people who have other sources of income.
How wrestle with traditional ethical questions in dealing with donors and advertisers?
Kramer: You have to proceed with integrity. Anyone who has money may have a point of view; you just have to insist that the staff will write stories the way they need to be written.
Steiger: ProPublica works with a single donor — the Sandler Foundation. The foundation and the other board members do not know in advance what ProPublica journalists are writing about. “We do consult with them about ways to be more efficient,” says Steiger. “They can talk to me or my immediate deputy about story ideas,” but not the staff. It’s worked this way for the better part of a year. They Established integrity boundaries right away.
Sawyer: The Gates Foundation biggest supporter of health journalism and health projects around the world. He has not asked Gates for funding, because he knows that journalists will be focusing on some of their projects, and that could be awkward.
Your sites look like newspaper sites. Are you trying anything different?
Kramer: We want documentary-style video, but it doesn’t draw any more traffic than print and it costs more money and time.
Sawyer: HIV AIDS in Jamaica project. Based on poetry; we commissioned music. It’s a classic example of very aggressive after-marketing. It was very expensive — $60,000+. But they’re getting a lot of bang for that buck.
Steiger: The Web’s a good place for video, graphics, crowd-sourcing. But when they had the opportunity to partner with “60 Minutes,” they let them do video.
What’s the economic model for individuals to develop professionally? What’s your advice for journalists?
Steiger: It’s going to be much tougher. The old models gone. New opportunities are arising. Part of the success in journalism is being faster on your feet.
Sawyer: His organization depends on the freelance model. “When we have a good freelancer, we use them again and again,” he says. They do after-marketing on stories, so that they can get more income.
Still see national and international news on local sites. I think it’s an old model. Why do local sites still have national and international news?
Freivogel: People live their lives in a global village. People in St. Louis have connections with people and events in other parts of the world.
Kramer: “I thought we were going to be completely local,” when they started out, he says. They did focus groups that said: Yes, be local, but don’t be provincial. “We do 90 percent local,” he says, “but people live in worlds at many levels,” so they also incorporate some relevant national and international news.