Triangle’s Media Ecosystem Needs Tributaries and Mainstream

Sitting next to News & Observer editor John Drescher last Friday during a forum about the Triangle’s media landscape, I had to feel a bit sorry for him. Of the nearly 20 representatives of news media in the region, he was the most prominent representative of the mainstream media and drew all the fire from the bloggers, entrepreneurs, do-gooders and pontificators who had him easily outnumbered and whose smaller organizations had often beaten his Goliath newsroom on important stories.

But I also envied Drescher. He was also the only one at the table who had ever dropped $200,000 of his company’s money on an investigation of a state agency. And the only one who knew what it was like to spend four years pinging the government for public records before he had a story solid enough to sell to his subscribers and advertisers.

One other thing made Drescher an enviable character in the Triangle’s media ecosystem. Despite their valid criticisms of increasing gaps in The News & Observer’s coverage of our communities many noted without irony in their voices, the small, independent and non-profit news operations had the most impact on public policy when they got the attention of Drescher’s paper or one of the local television stations.

And that made me realize that if our state is going to retain its generation-long reputation as a home for journalism that gives voice to the voiceless and holds powerful people accountable, then we must find a way to foster dozens of new and diverse tributaries of news and information that flow into the big, slow-moving mainstream media. Without the tributaries, the MSM seems likely to evaporate entirely. Without a larger channel into which they can empty, the tributaries seem likely to overwhelm us with a flood of disconnected datapoints.

Drescher and the rest of us at the meeting had been brought together by Fiona Morgan, a Duke graduate student, former reporter for The Independent and author of an excellent new study about media in the Triangle. The report is one of several local media ecology studies produced by the New America Foundation‘s Media Policy Initiative. The meeting was hosted by the Triangle Community Foundation. Two quotes in the report struck me as bookends that support my belief that North Carolina needs both professional and amateur journalists in order to build a sustainable news ecosystem in the age of digital, networked media.

For a traditional journalist like me, Ruby Sinreich is the model blogger. Her site, which deals with Orange County politics, is unabashedly left-leaning but also deeply respectful of the facts and of diverse views. Sinreich breaks news and fosters conversation that far surpasses anything found elsewhere in the media glut of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. As Morgan’s report chronicles, Sinreich maintains her blog as a hobby. The site costs $240 a year to publish, but the labor she puts into it is probably worth $25,000 to $40,000 a year. Considering Sinreich also has a day job and a small kid, that’s an amazing contribution to the community. But it’s also a precarious contribution. Sinreich’s blog is not a sustainable business and she told Morgan that she wasn’t sure she wanted it to be.

“It’s a perennial question whether to take advertising,” Sinreich is quoted as saying. “If I did, I feel I would have to be more accountable to the readers of the site and do more research on my posts, rather than writing about whatever interests me. If there were an important meeting coming up, I’d feel like, ‘I don’t want to go, but I have to go cover it.’ … I have a job, and it pays much more than BlogAds.”

So how much, exactly, can you make selling ads on a local blog? Well, Durham blog Bull City Rising brings in $50 to $400 a month. Cary Politics aims to raise $100 a month in donations.  And the entertainment-heavy New Raleigh blog has a self-reported annual revenue of “the low six figures.”

The revenue for these new media startups is dwarfed by even the most troubled mainstream media outlets in the region. Compare the blogs’ revenue to the Triangle’s most established “alternative” newspaper, The Independent. In a good year, The Independent brings in $3 million, its president, Steve Schewel, said last week.

Incumbent media outlets also dwarf the websites’ in terms of audience. According to Morgan’s report, the blogs get between 2,000 and 40,000 people to their sites each month. The N&O and WRAL draw a few million to their sites.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when even the most altruistic amateur journalists are driven more by their political interests than their financial interests. Money can keep a reporter on the beat even when there’s something else she’d rather be doing. Money keeps the watchdog on the lookout even while the rest of us enjoy our daily lives.

But, of course, money’s influencing power can also color the media’s reporting of the facts. As Morgan notes, UNC-TV gets more than half of its money from the state legislature. Recently, that’s created a conflict and public debate about whether the state’s open records law trumps the state’s “shield law” that is intended to keep reporter’s notes private and from being co-opted as a compulsory investigative force for the government. As it played out, UNC-TV management opted to act as a state agency.

In the media business, as in politics, many small streams of revenue seem more likely to dilute the ability for one large stream to exercise undue influence. And also just as in politics, incumbency seems to have its advantages in the media business.

The similarities between politics and the news media don’t end with those two examples. It was another quote in Morgan’s report – this one from Jock Lauterer – my colleague at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication – that shows just how much the MSM needs the blogosphere as well. Lauterer is director of the Carolina Community Media Project, a co-producer of the Northeast Central Durham Community VOICE newspaper.

“The whole community organizing dynamic is what newspaper publishers and editors have not been good at, or haven’t had to do before. But if we’re not partnering, we’re dead. We have to be constantly seeking out new partners to be sustainable,” he told Morgan for her report.

Now I don’t know how many newspaper editors and publishers you know, but most of the ones I’ve met are allergic to the idea of organizing or being organized. It runs against the fierce sense of independence that allows the best of their investigations to be unmoved by popular sentiment. The mainstream news editors I know have grown accustomed to being harangued by often loyal but sometimes deeply disturbed members of their audience. Inviting them any closer into the journalistic process seems a threat not just to their professional integrity but their personal wellbeing.

So that’s another way that mainstream journalists are much like political candidates. The difference is that any political operation worth its salt knows that you never turn away any willing supporter – even the crazy ones. Not every volunteer is going to get access to the strategy meetings, but good campaigns finds some small way that any potential friend can contribute to the cause.

Professional reporters, whose ranks are being mowed down by an unsustainable business model that relies on corralling an increasingly dispersed and disaggregated audience, need to organize their audience in order to lower the cost of reporting.

The Triangle doesn’t necessarily need more professional journalists. What it needs is more people who think journalistically. We need more people who can not just describe what is seen, but who are curious about what we might not be seeing. We need more people who are less interested in what they can make people think and more interested in showing them how we know what we know. Curiosity and verification are the core tenants of journalistic thinking that I teach my newswriting students, and we need to find a way to hone those instincts among all North Carolinians. At the very least, they’ll become better consumers of news and there’s a chance that some might even become better producers of news.

But organizing a community takes more than just will. It takes a plan, and there are a few actions we can take right now if we want to strengthen journalistic thinking in the state and lower the barriers to entry for new media entrepreneurs:

  1. Every public record that is produced after today at every level of government should be made available quickly online in a format that can be easily digested by computer programs. These programs can lower the cost of detecting early trends or newsworthy oddities by automatically combing fields of data.
  2. Every incumbent news organization should hire at least one person to actively cultivate online community. Like broken windows in an abandoned urban neighborhood, the uninformed anger and irrelevant rants of article comments on news websites have given visitors the impression that it’s OK to behave badly in those places. Site publishers have to be active and engaged hosts who reward good behavior and punish bad. Similarly, blogs and social media have too long been on “the wrong side of the tracks” from the places where traditional reporters look for stories. The mainstream media needs to help anyone in their community that is already blogging on current events learn how to dig deeper into a story by requesting public records, identifying larger trends, and verifying everything they see and hear.
  3. Community foundations should establish and fund a volunteer program similar to AmeriCorps that financially supports recent college graduates who want to spend two years reporting news from communities that have no professional reporters dedicated to them.
  4. Journalistic thinking and digital publishing should become a part of any civic leadership or volunteer training effort. Morgan’s report notes the importance of “neighborhood colleges” and public access television in helping to develop community leaders and media producers. Each of those programs should add journalistic thinking and digital publishing to their agendas.
  5. Leaders of the high-tech industry in the Triangle should organize public-interest “code camps” during which computer programmers spend intensive weekends focused on developing free and open-source digital tools that can be used by professional and amateur journalists.
  6. Media literacy should be added to the state middle and high school curricula. Journalistic thinking can help North Carolina’s students learn about writing, math, and the scientific method. Teaching them to produce digital media can increase the fluency with information technology that will help them find jobs and develop the state’s rural and urban economies.

Morgan’s report and her follow-up conference last week make it absolutely clear that the Triangle has an unusual diversity of journalistic species. But what’s lacking is a symbiotic ecosystem that all of them need to survive. Whatever you think about the MSM or about pajama-clad bloggers, you can’t help but realize when reading Morgan’s report that in our current Darwinian media landscape, the creature most likely to become extinct is a free, fair and factual public discourse that holds powerful people accountable, shines light in dark places and gives voice to the voiceless.

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