Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Welcome Aboard, Sandy

Last week, Sandy Rowe, the editor who hired me at The Oregonian back in 1994, published a new paper at the Shorenstein Center about collaborations to support watchdog reporting in an age of limited newsroom resources.

Sandy's bottom-line take in "Partners of Necessity: The Case for Collaboration in Local Investigative Reporting" is that the crumbling business models that have underwritten the cost of watchdog/accountability/investigative reporting -- primarily newspapers – will continue to crumble and that "no new business model is within reach."

Then, in the next paragraph she writes:
Growing evidence suggests that collaborations and partnerships between new and established news organizations, universities and foundations may be the overlooked key for investigative journalism to thrive at the local and state levels. These partnerships, variously and often loosely organized, can share responsibility for content creation, generate wider distribution of stories and spread the substantial cost of accountability journalism.
What's this? Sounds like a business model. And if it sounds like a familiar one, it should.

This model -- let's call it the collaboration model -- has been around about as long as modern daily journalism. Back in 1846, a handful of newspapers in New York City pooled their resources to pay for news couriers from the Mexican-American War. That collaboration worked quite well, and today it is the nonprofit news organization known as the Associated Press.

With her paper, Sandy does a fantastic job of describing the emerging landscape of newsgathering collaborations at the national and local level. But she approaches the topic -- understandably -- from the point of view of a newsroom executive, not a publisher. And in doing so, she sells short the potential of the very business model she has documented.

Today, smaller scale nonprofit models are being replicated in communities across the nation -- sometimes formally, sometimes informally -- among traditional news outlets, startup newsrooms and universities. Why? Because nonprofits are a highly adaptable business model when traditional models and markets fail.

Yes, as Sandy notes, many of the startups that supply original investigative content to these collaborations are highly dependent on foundations, and they probably will be for a while. And yes, many will fail because their leadership comes from the old school of journalism, which shunned the notion of an entrepreneurial newsroom.

But "give it away" is more than what Sandy calls a "new value" of investigative journalism. In today's news online news ecosystem, it's also a hard fact of economic life, and with all respect to the New York Times’ effort to erect an online pay wall, there’s no for-profit model that can change its impact. For better or worse, as Texas Tribune founder John Thornton ably argued a couple of years ago, the potential for infinite replication of a news story on the Internet drives its production cost toward zero. So if you’re wondering why there’s not as much great investigative journalism coming out of for-profit enterprises as there used to be, the reason is simple: There’s no money in it. The only way to get it in the quantities we need is to have nonprofits do the work that that our old models used to do – without the profit imperative.

While Sandy cites the successes of nonprofit newsrooms from ProPublica to the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, she overlooks how rapidly the model is evolving -- and the success that some are having in weaning themselves from the cycle of grantmaking. Recently, Texas Tribune disclosed that only 51 percent of its revenues come from philanthropy. That bears repeating: 51 percent. Just three years ago, getting under 80 percent would have been regarded as something of a 4-minute-mile mark, deemed impossible to break. But it has happened.

And it won’t stop there. New institutions – particularly Investigative News Network, the two-year-old umbrella organization for nonprofit news organizations – are looking for ways to bring collaboration to scale. Will they find a silver bullet this year or next? Probably not. But by sharing experience and expertise, they’re going to get a lot closer a lot faster than we might surmise from our observations to date. While some well-known startups are girding for a fight with their brethren over foundation funding, the savvy ones are getting on board the network bandwagon.

A parting thought: It’s easy to forget how much progress has been made so quickly. But I am reminded and highly encouraged by what I see behind Sandy’s paper: Here we have one of journalism’s leading lights wrapping her mind around a model that, after her Shorenstein stint, I hope she will embrace by applying herself to a leadership position that might not have existed two or three years ago. I think she could accomplish things that she never imagined.

At the very beginning of her paper, Sandy recounts the blow she felt when one of her managing editors and her investigative editor left The Oregonian in 2008 to join ProPublica. That anecdote made me flash back a couple of years earlier, to 2006, when after a great deal of research, I sent Sandy an email from my seat in the D.C. bureau proposing that The Oregonian’s parent, Newhouse newspapers, create a nonprofit to do investigative journalism at the national level. Her reply at the time was a courteous, one-line dismissal saying in essence that she was too busy to look at the proposal and would send it to her next-in-command in the newsroom. Now I have the kind of response I had been hoping for, and I’m glad to see it.

Welcome aboard, Sandy.

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