By Steve Outing
Josh Stearns of Free Press called me out on Twitter yesterday: “@steveouting Would love to get your thoughts on Mutter… my response is here http://bit.ly/cVoWrc.” Well, I better not ignore that call to action…
Stearns is referring to Alan Mutter’s item this week on his Newsosaurus blog, “Non-profits can’t possibly save the news,” in which the news-media analyst opens:
“An amazing number of smart and sophisticated people continue to harbor the fantasy that philanthropic contributions can take over funding journalism from the media companies that traditionally have supported the press.”
Mutter cites figures that American newsrooms today are spending $1.6 billion a year less on journalism than in 2006, and suggests that there’s no way that foundation and philanthropic funding of non-profit news organizations will get anywhere close to making up for all that lost news coverage.
TexasTribune.org (a non-profit online news entity) founder John Thornton did a great job of refuting Mutter’s take on non-profit news, and I doubt I can do better. But to satisfy Josh, I’ll add my few cents. …
Of all that lost for-profit journalism that used to be published by newspapers, lots of it is no longer needed. Newspapers have lost plenty of movie and book reviewers; foreign and Washington, D.C., correspondents; sports reporters who travel across the country to cover every away game; and on and on. I don’t mean to belittle the loss of those jobs, but the Internet has made available plenty of credible replacements.
Is it necessary that my hometown paper have a professional movie reviewer, when I can read a wide range of professional and movie-goer reviews on my laptop or phone? I’m not the only person who’s stood in front of the multiplex theater deciding what movie to see by checking the reviews and trailers using Flixster on my smartphone. … That the local metro paper no longer has a correspondent in D.C. is lamentable, but there are plenty of replacements just a few clicks or finger-taps away. … Foreign news coverage? I’ve never had such a wide range of sources available to me, for free, no less.
In other words, plenty of that $1.6 billion in lost newspaper journalism is not going to be replaced; it already has been by other parties.
The part of that lost journalism that’s most important — and has not been replaced by new digital players because there’s no business model to support it — is investigative, in-depth, watchdog, enterprise journalism. You know, the months-long investigation by dogged reporters that uncovers the corruption by the county sewer board that’s led to poison in your drinking water. The stuff that wins Pulitzer Prizes.
Newspapers are doing less of that important work, and that’s unlikely to change. Non-profit news organizations like TexasTribune, ProPublica, Voice of San Diego, and many others can fill some of the loss — for a lot less than $1.6 billion a year.
Non-profit news will grow — it must grow — in order to cover that part of the news (the most important to our communities and society) for which a profitable business model no longer exists to support. I believe that foundations, philanthropists, individual donors, and development of non-profit business models that are sustainable without requiring unending foundation checks is achievable for a non-profit news eco-system to supplement the weakened for-profit news media.
Mutter, whose musings I often enjoy, is guilty of thinking too black-and-white, I’d say, with his blog post this week. Non-profit news will grow, prosper, and serve the public better than the sector has in the past. It will be but one part of an increasingly diverse news eco-system.
I can’t think of anyone in the media-criticism or industry-punditry space with views that fit into Mutter’s opening-paragraph description.