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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More thoughts on new journalism site

*UPDATE

If I wasn't already serious about starting a new Greater Cleveland journalism-focused site, I am ever more convinced of its merits and necessity after reading "The Nonprofit Road: It's paved not with gold, but with good journalism," in the September/October issue of Columbia Journalism Review.

Between Charles Lewis' (that's my dad's name so it's weird to use it for someone else) article and a feature on Josh Marshall and his Talking Points Memo, I am convinced that the way forward journalistically speaking for Cleveland is an independent site dedicated to original investigative in-depth journalism, thoughtful features and intelligent commentary.

Of course, I have no idea how to pay for such a site or even what revenue model would support such a site. But I am convinced of several things that make me want to find a way financially: good stories are routinely under- or unreported yet are found everywhere, fine writers capable of telling those stories abound and the audience for those good stories exists and is willing to read them and support an online format.

Mainstream news is limited by time, space and a beat system that seems to work against the enterprise reporting MSM espouses as its most worthy content. About Marshall's efforts, David Glenn writes:
New articles in mainstream dailies often contain facts whose full implications aren’t explored, Marshall says, “either because of space or editorial constraints or because the reporters themselves don’t know the story well enough. They’re often parachuted in to work on these topics for just a few weeks."
In these parts, anything that happens on the county level is a prime example of that approach. Don't just take my word for it.

What's inspiring about Marshall's work is that it began simply, as a blog. When he needed money to cover something (such as the New Hampshire primary) he asked readers for contributions. And they responded—with minimal donations (mostly $20-$50) that eventually allowed him to hire employees and expand his site's focus. “We’ve never had any investment capital behind us,” Marshall says. “So we have to be profitable every month. It’s all on a kind of cash-as-you-go basis.”

Marshall has been blogging a lot longer than most of us — since 2000. He has grown his audience, experience and content organically, relying more on the shoe-leather of original reporting and developing sources than on some fancy Web platform and design. If content is king, then Marshall has launched his own dynasty that has daily newspaper reporters such as Dean Calbreath of The San Diego Union-Tribune, saying the site, “provides reporters with sources that might not be at the top of our radar screen,” he says. “Being based in San Diego, I’m not a big reader of The Hill, for instance. But by reading TPM, I can have easy access to [The Hill’s] pertinent articles. The commentary at TPM, meanwhile, poses important questions that we might not have thought of on our own.”

Content is king. As Elisabeth Sifton, senior vice president at Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, writes in her CJR essay in the same issue, " The Second Draft of History: Where newspapers fall short, news books continue to succeed" (not available online):
"Readers are showing, not only in their use of the Web but in their purchase of books, an age-old, still insatiable appetite for intelligently reported news; when they can, they devour five-hundred-page tomes about events near and far and make bestsellers of them. What an irony—to have news editors fear they might no longer attract readers with sustained, individuated attention to the perils of our time, and to have book publishers demonstrate the opposite."
So I'm wondering what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Does it make sense to start a site as a blog and begin to build audience and traffic before making it more sophisticated? Is there financing available to at least pay some good writers for solid content? Are there people willing to get involved with such a start-up in hopes of a long-term payoff? Web developers, marketing experts, journalists, editors, business development experts?

Other cities are doing this successfully and I will talk with their founders to learn about about the process and the model they chose. But check out the following to see what appeals to you.

Minnesota Monitor
LA Observed
Beachwood Reporter (Chicago)
* New Haven Independent

I envision a Greater Cleveland site that includes the things I'd love to see in a good print magazine—politics, business, economic development, education, arts and culture, books, sports, history, profiles, travel, architecture, style, urban culture, media, food, the environment—all related to Greater Cleveland.

The kinds of stories I'm interested in reading are those that go beyond a recitation of what happened, but that take an in-depth look at how government decisions play out for the average citizen, or how policy affects us. I want to read the work of writers capable of connecting those dots, those capable for writing intelligent, INFORMED analysis.

And that's where Lewis's article provided the necessary push forward.
"...our democracy’s need for higher-quality reportage has substantially increased. It’s time for civil society, especially the nation’s foundations and individuals of means, to collaborate with journalists and experts who understand the changing economics of journalism in an imaginative, visionary plan that would support our precious existing nonprofit institutions and help to develop new ones—the Associated Presses and Morning Editions and Frontlines of the future, in all forms of media."
[snip]

"There are tantalizing signs that specific philanthropic institutions and individuals finally realize just how severe the crisis has become. The question is: Can they overcome their sometimes short-term thinking and fickle, often idiosyncratic nature and make significant, multi-year commitments to strengthen or build pillars of journalism in their communities, the nation, and beyond? Can they think outside their own agendas and embrace the inherent value of accurate, nonpartisan information to our national discourse?

The journalists are ready. More than at any time I can remember in the past thirty years, respected journalists in the U.S. and around the world, frustrated by what has become of their profession, appear to be increasingly interested in carpe diem entrepreneurship, in starting, leading, or working in new nonprofit newsrooms locally, nationally, and even internationally. And in recent months, major philanthropists and journalists, in different settings around the country, have been talking to each other about what is needed and what is possible." (Bold is mine)

I'm ready. Let's seize the opportunity to bring something journalistically empowering, engaging and informative to Greater Cleveland.

5 comments:

Kelly said...

Quite an ambitious vision, Wendy!

In my opinion, one reason why blogs "work" is that writers are passionate about their topics and want to get the news out there. Or, phrased a different way, the blogs that DO work are fueled by writers who are passionate about their topics.

Most of us have written plenty of pieces that were assigned to us -- and lots of them have turned out to be worthwhile/rewarding experiences and pieces. But, there can be such unfettered joy to choose a topic, just because you care, and to simply go after it . . .

Kelly

Jill said...

Check out Paul Bass and the New Haven Independent again if you haven't lately.

Wendy Hoke said...

Thanks, Jill. I added a link to the above list. I haven't seen that in a while, but I really like the look now.

Kelly, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I couldn't agree more.

Michelle O'Neil said...

Perhaps also some levity.

Someone in charge of satire, and of spoofing the whole darned thing.

I love the writing in The New Yorker, but the cartoons keep me coming back.

robataka said...

Hi Wendy,

I know I am commenting on an old post, but it seemed the most appropriate. Today, the following link came across my rss reader:

http://www.propublica.org

From their "what" description;

What
ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that will produce investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work will focus exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We will do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.

I just though you might be interested.