It’s been at least a decade since newspapers began to realize that the world, as they knew it, was ending.
Rapid adoption of broadband internet and the introduction of inexpensive smartphones — handheld computers, really — were dealing a death blow to the traditional economic model of newspapers. Online retailers like Amazon were destroying our advertisers. Facebook and Google gobbled huge pieces of the remaining advertising pie. Print subscribers canceled as they found “content” for free online, much of it posted by the newspapers themselves.
So what to do? There was a lot of cost-cutting, and some good newspapers closed or were sold to the chains. There was an unfortunate reliance on “clicks,” as in “Post anything that will get a lot of attention, and we will try to sell ads around it.” I admit I succumbed and for several years held The Columbian’s page-view record with a 54-word shoplifting story that I headlined “Vibrating condom, energy drink stolen.”
And, apparently, so is the rest of the industry. I just returned from a national editor’s conference, where some things were said that finally make sense to me. Things like “Journalism is going to survive, but the funding model is going to be heavily dependent on readers,” and “Grants and philanthropy will play a role in the future of journalism, but won’t pay for all of it.”
I might add a third observation: “Bigger projects will require collaboration, particularly across platforms.”
Let me expound a little on these points. Northwestern University has done work on the readership question, and here were some of its takeaways:
• Readers will continue to subscribe if they view your news at least 10 times per month.
• Readers will continue to subscribe if your content is unique. In other words, if you offer news that isn’t widely available.
• Readers will be more inclined to drop their subscriptions if there isn’t enough local focus.
Makes sense. This is why we devote nearly all of our journalism resources at The Columbian to covering Clark County’s stories and de-emphasize Oregon and national news. We recognize our niche.
Grants and charity
Soliciting philanthropic contributions is a new area for newspapers. It’s long been done by public broadcasting — in our area, Oregon Public Broadcasting has built a $40 million organization from government funding, large grants from charitable organizations and “contributions from viewers like you.”
A leader among newspapers is The Seattle Times, which has raised $5 million to support reporting around education, homelessness and traffic. They’ve been at it for about five years, and have found it to be a way to support a small but significant percentage of their news gathering costs. The bulk is still borne by subscribers and advertisers.
There are a few caveats, of course. The newspaper needs to be accountable to its donors to show how the gift is spent directly on journalism. Donors need to know that their contributions don’t buy them special access or the ability to suggest story topics or “spin.” And the newspaper needs to be transparent with its readers about how it solicits and spends the money.
In addition to these big grants, we’re also seeing more organizations offering grants of a few thousand dollars to support work on a particular story. A lot of times the money is used for travel, but it can also be used to acquire public records, hire an expert or scientifically test something.
Finally, collaboration will be key to big projects. Look no further than Thursday’s Columbian, which included the second story in a series by Underscore.news reporter Sergio Olmos about Vancouver’s Patriot Prayer and its charismatic leader, Joey Gibson. Sergio has spent a year on this story, something we could never have done.
The news business is still beset by hard times. But we are starting to see some ways we can positively affect our future.