Just about this time last year, local financier Rob Arkley was negotiating with media mogul Dean Singleton to kill his 5-year-old Eureka Reporter. Arkley shut its doors Nov. 6 and Singleton folded the ER's editorial page into his Times-Standard.
I thought about that when I read that San Francisco financier Warren Hellman will invest $5 million to start a non-profit local online news organization in the Bay Area in partnership with NPR station KQED and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Some say it could kill the San Francisco Chronicle. Others worry it will rely on unpaid or cheap students labor who will report news without the context of history or quality sourcing.
I think the project presents more promise than problems. And I hope it succeeds and can be duplicated in small communities, like Humboldt.
In April of 1835, a guy by the name of James Gordon Bennett started the New York Herald in his apartment with a desk made of wooden planks supported by two wood barrels. He invested $500 in the venture, which would be the equivalent of about $12,000 today. He pioneered the practice of going out and gathering facts for news stories and interviewing politicians about their ideas and plans. In other words, he experimented with a new model of journalism for a changing world. Two years earlier, his chief competitor, Benjamin Day, started the New York Sun with a new model that brought down the cost of a newspaper to one penny; circulation soared and businesses sought to advertise. That supported the newspaper and made it profitable. Other newspapers, including the New York Times, arose as entrepreneurs who copied the models Day and Bennett set. Professional journalism didn't really exist before these two papers. Now we are in a time when we fear it is dead.
But new models are embryos for organisms that will evolve. Journalists are creative, independent-minded people. Take 100 journalism grads and give them great experience, and if there are no professional jobs out there, some will become the entrepreneurs who will launch the next evolution. Over time they will become the ones who report deeper news with context and great sourcing. Some will become specialized reporters who will work for magazines and national news organizations that can generate profits.
General newspapers that carry huge costs of printing and the labor that goes with it can't make it. But it could be that new organizations, started by experienced reporters, who produce online news to people hungry for it, might be able to make it. If Hellman's venture can work with $5 million in startup funds, it is possible that in smaller communities, similar ventures could be set up for far less than that.
The many news organizations I worked for over the course of my career seemed to follow one of two models: Some hired experienced, talented editors at high cost, who then oversaw cheap, inexperienced reporters. The model worked because the editors could give the reporters the direction they needed. Or the news organization hired cheap, less-than-talented editors but relied on experienced, talented reporters who needed little direction.
Here in Humboldt, editors ask me how they can use Humboldt State students as unpaid reporters. At the journalism department we discourage that; it would hinder the creation of paid jobs which students need upon graduation.
But a non-profit news organization would be a different story. If the non-profit produced a real service to the community, the community might respond with continued and increased funding. That would allow the hiring of a professional staff that could oversee the inexperienced low-paid workers.
Except for a few years during the Internet boom, journalism was a historically low-paid profession. I don't know any journalists who ever expected to get rich. Instead, publishers always exploited them to stay rich.
By relying on community funding rather than advertising, a non-profit news organization would have to deliver real service to the local population, not local business.
That would turn Benjamin Day's model for journalism on its head. And since that model is now 176 years old, it is time we tossed it. In 2004, the newspaper industry had an operating profit of more than 20 percent. That was the year that investors of Knight-Ridder forced the sale of the 32-paper chain, which had earned 85 Pulitzer Prizes, because it pulled in a mere 19 percent in operating profits.
Last week in Washington, New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney held hearings on a new bill she sponsored, H.R. 3602, which could give local news organizations tax-exempt status. Some argue that amounts to government support of the press. But Princeton University sociologist and historian Paul Starr testified before Maloney's Joint Economic Committee that the U.S. government recognized from its birth that you can't have a healthy democracy without a healthy press and subsidized it with free and inexpensive postal service.
Eliminate the high cost of printing and delivering the paper. End the siphoning of profits to investors. Give news organizations the ability to operate tax-free. And maybe we can build sustainable organizations that can be the watchdogs of our government and corporate enterprises that we need.
Even as the journalism industry implodes, more young people turn up at schools like Berkeley and HSU to become journalists. We need to foster that enthusiasm, ensure they get the training they need, and direct that enthusiasm toward community service. That should be the journalist's true mission.