The never-ending fight for future journalism

Written By Mick Stinelli, Columnist

If you’re reading this newspaper, you likely read other newspapers. If you read other newspapers, you’ve likely seen headlines proclaiming the imminent death of journalism. These proclamations are nothing new.

A 2011 documentary, “Page One: Inside The New York Times,” focused heavily on the paper of record’s struggles with adapting to the digital age. It seems odd to think that the media landscape has changed significantly since 2011, but the film is something of a time capsule. “Page One” focuses on two of The Times’ media reporters, David Carr and Brian Stelter. Stelter is now an anchor for CNN. Carr died in 2015. The two biggest rivals to The New York Times that the film focuses on are the Huffington Post and Newser. Yes, in 2011, a website called Newser was considered a potential threat to The New York Times’ revenue system.

The Times is now under new leadership and has grown substantially in digital subscribers since the 2016 election. But for many outlets – even those digital giants that were supposed to take journalism into the future – the situation has only grown more dire since 2011. Just last week, over a thousand journalists were laid off between Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country.

“What if there is literally no profitable model for digital news?” Chris Hayes, the MSNBC anchor, tweeted. I would go even further and suggest journalism itself just isn’t profitable.

“Good reporting is slow, good stories unfold and most stories that need telling don’t involve the White House,” Jill Lepore wrote in the New Yorker recently. The kind of work Lepore describes produces valuable stories, but it doesn’t excite stockholders. Investors are impatient; they want big returns, and they want them quickly. It may be time to look at journalism as a public good, no different than a park or a library, and investors should consider themselves the benefactors. Local news outlets bring communities closer.

A recent study in the Journal of Communication found that the loss of local newspapers contributes to political polarization. When a community doesn’t have access to a newspaper, the study found, they ignore the nuance each candidate provides and simply vote along party lines. In an age when both sides of the aisle lament the polarization of politics, we should all strive to be more informed. Just as news must hold politicians accountable, we must hold ourselves accountable when local news lacks the resources to do so. Either we contribute as consumers, or we contribute as donors.

If news turns nonprofit, where do local outlets turn for funding? Sites like ProPublica have adopted the model of public media, relying on donations large and small to fund its investigative reporting. It’s been successful so far; ProPublica consistently publishes excellent, thorough articles and has raked in four Pulitzer Prizes since 2008.

Report for America, a non-profit organization, sends journalists to little newsrooms across the country, paying half the reporters’ salary to ease the burden on the employer. It’s one way to free up resources for a struggling paper, while also bringing in a valuable new team member, even if it is only for one year.

In “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now,” Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of The Guardian, describes the tribulations of breaking stories while keeping a newspaper afloat in a changing media landscape. His solution: free access to everyone, no pay wall. He realized readers would be happier to donate their money to a free-to-access site than they would to pay for a subscription to get past a pay wall.

Maybe this public model couldn’t work for everyone. A lot of outlets worry that free access would devalue the product. But maybe it’s time for news outlets to take down that pay wall and give it a chance. News can’t be thought of as a business anymore. It’s a necessity to a healthy democracy, and an antidote to a world shrouded in a fog of fictions.