Tuesday, November 18, 2008


A piece in The New York Times today, on the front page, caught my eye. It's a story by Richard Perez-Pena and carries the headline, Web Sites That Dig for News Rise as Community Watchdogs. Increasingly, the news business—information and its consumption—is becoming a nonprofit activity, more like public broadcasting.

Perez-Pena cited Voice of San Diego.org, which does original news reporting at close to half the cost of what it would probably cost offline. Similar nonprofit Web news operations have cropped up in other cities, including Chicago and Seattle, and news nonprofits without a specific geographic focus—such as Pro Publica, a news site devoted to investigative journalism -for-hire—also are trying to fill the void left by dying local newspapers and imploding old media newsrooms. In fact, public- or foundation-funded news operations are getting close to reaching critical mass: some of the people running these new nonprofit news operations say they plan to form an association to start fighting, collectively, for future funding.

The question, though, is scale. Is there (and will there be) enough funding available to nurture the expansion and adequate development of this new model for news? Is this truly the future of journalism—a form of taxpayer-funded, citizen-led advocacy, in its own right? The topic has been hotly contested for years—but there seems no doubt, especially this week (and in this economy) that the movement toward "nonprofit news" is accelerating.

Spot.us, a new platform for community-funded journalism, officially launched this week. It promises to give the public a way to commission journalists "to do investigations on important and perhaps overlooked stories." Its open-source platform promises to build a template that can be used by others, to reinvigorate civic engagement in local communities. Stanford's own John S. Knight Fellowship program, meanwhile, just announced it is revamping its vaunted program for mid-career journalists, to focus more on newsroom innovation and the use of social media to foster new forms of community engagement in journalism, online and off. (Last week, as if to underscore the urgent need for new models, the Knight Foundation launched a new community site called Knight Pulse, to discuss the future of information, itself.)

Buzz Woolley, a San Diego businessman quoted in the Times piece, says that "information should be thought of now in the same way as education and public health. It's one of the things you need to operate a civil society and the [current] market isn't doing it very well."

The bad news? Competition is becoming more brutal for existing nonprofit dollars, and the economy isn't helping. But there is also an upside: there have never been more ways to get a story told, nor as many people looking to help tell it. And that's not all: thanks to inexpensive video cameras, Webcams, digital video cameras, and still cameras, it's never been cheaper to tell stories that can make a difference.

This year's market-rattled giving season may have already gone bust, but now's the time to start engaging supporters, readers, and stakeholders of all stripes in telling the stories of their lives. This year's recession? A great place to start.

(Illustration, Target Man, by Miroslaw Pieprzyk for istock.com)

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