Put up or shut up: Newspapers aren't the only forum for great journalism

Plenty of commentators have expressed their anguish over Tribune Company’s management of the Los Angeles Times. The controversy over further cuts in the paper’s newsroom this month has cost the publisher his job. Several super-rich Californians have made overtures to buy the paper from Chicago-based Tribune. Yet in all the commotion, one question remains unaddressed:

Since when is the Los Angeles Times the only place anyone can do great journalism in L.A.?

Obviously, The Times has done its share. Over the past decade, the paper has distinguished itself with multiple Pulitzer Prizes, as well as engaging daily stories that expose injustices from crooked judges to L.A.’s pathetic Skid Row. Yet failure balances The Times’ recent triumph. Tribune-mandated cutbacks have reduced the newsroom from about 1,200 to a little more than 900. That’s led to the closure of most of The Times’ suburban bureaus and a massive reduction in neighborhood coverage.

Word from the newsroom reports that Tribune wants the newsroom even smaller, to about 800 or so. That’s sparked concern from local business leaders, who fear, along with most Times reporters, that a smaller Times newsroom won’t be able to properly cover Southern California. Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson and Editor Dean Baquet have protested, too. Now, Johnson’s off the job.

One might think that business and government leaders would enjoy having fewer eyes looking into their affairs. Writing in Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, media critic Tim Rutten pointed out that an aggressive local press has helped communities grow, by exposing the inefficiencies of graft and corruption. Rutten correctly credited newspaper managers for helping enrich America, and themselves, over the past half century.

“The astonishing financial success of postwar American journalism rested on a recognition that an educated and increasingly urbanized readership demanded more sophisticated information on a broader range of topics than ever before and on newspaper managers’ willingness to invest in covering them.”

But established newspapers are not, and need not be, the only actors in the news industry. Rutten acknowledged that “the era into which we now are moving will involve new ways of distributing journalism — new combinations of print and online venues and, surely, avenues we cannot foresee.”

If the Tribune Company wishes to cut the Los Angeles Times’ newsroom into irrelevance, that ought to be the Tribune’s right as the LAT’s owner. Johnson and Baquet deserve credit for fighting for their newsroom. But there’s no need for those who have expressed interest in buying The Times to keep their money in their pockets, should Tribune continue to refuse to sell.

Want to protect and improve the quality of local journalism in Southern California? Great. Then go hire some of those folks that Tribune’s about to lay off and start up your own newsroom. Worried about the high cost of starting up a new print newspaper, in an era when print’s losing readers to the Web? Why bother? Simply start a Web newsroom instead. Worried about the loss of influence publishing online instead of in print? Um, didn’t we just say that print was losing readers to the Web?

Many local journalists already have made the switch to online publishing. Just scan the dozens listed on Kevin Roderick’s LAObserved.com, under the headings “Media In or About Los Angeles” and “Selected Blogs and Websites.” Contrary to the attitude of some within the Times building, many blogs and independent websites feature smart, original reporting. And many more would if they could cash a check from the likes of Eli Broad to support their efforts.

Take the $1 billion that analysts have estimated The Times could fetch, divvy it among the paper’s 900-some newsroom employees, and you’ve got a cool million-plus. Per employee. How many sharp, local investigative websites could be funded with that kind of cash? Heck, maybe a little competition might better get Tribune’s attention.

Don’t want to run a charity? Fine. Why not hire a few soon-to-be-out-of-work ad reps to go out and find advertisers for these existing and prospective local indie news websites? I’ve lost count of the number of journalists who want to start their own original reporting news websites but have not out of fear that they won’t be able to sell enough ads to support themselves. They shouldn’t have to. Let the ad folks sell the ads, and the reporters do the reporting. A smart, well-funded local ad network for indie websites, run by experienced local sales reps, could help sustain the quality of local reporting more effectively than any amount of op-ed handwringing will. And make a bundle of cash for its investors, too.

The point is, Los Angeles has a strong, entrepreneurial business community that shouldn’t have to beg to Chicago for tough, local news coverage. If the Tribune Company doesn’t want to fund that the way folks around here think it should, then fine. Now’s the time for Tribune’s critics to put up, or shut up.

The Web is waiting.

From the ONA conference…

MSNBC.com, Roanoke.com, The Center for Public Integrity and NOLA.com won the top categories in the annual Online Journalism Awards, presented Saturday night by the Online News Association and the USC Annenberg School for Communication. Longtime OJR contributor Staci Kramer writes up the ONA conference sessions at PaidContent.org.

Quality Control: Q&A with John Battelle, Web content visionary

[Editor’s note: OJR welcomes back Sarah Colombo, a USC Annenberg graduate and former OJR student editor, who is rejoining us, now as a contributing writer, to cover the business side of online journalism.]

As founding editor and publisher of Wired magazine and the Industry Standard Magazine, John Battelle has certainly witnessed and experienced enough ebbs and flows in both the new and traditional media business to advise journalists on how to avoid common mistakes when establishing themselves online.

As a veteran technology journalist, Battelle is also highly skilled at engaging and maintaining an online audience on a level esteemed by many of his colleagues. His latest incarnations, Federated Media and Searchblog both appear to be strong examples of how to do it right.

Speaking by telephone from Federated Media headquarters in Sausalito, Calif., Battelle discussed the importance of establishing good conversation, and how his latest publishing venture has evoked a new way to help independent Web journalists get the bills paid.

OJR: What do you find that most journalists are lacking when they attempt to launch websites?

Battelle: The advice I give any journalist friend or colleague is to make the transition from that which I call packaged goods media–a finished television, news or radio report–to the conversational approach to [online] journalism. For most of us journalists who have spent a majority of their careers in the packaged goods area, it’s terrifying to hang it all out there and to admit that you might be wrong and to make mistakes and be corrected. It’s scary to say, I don’t have an editor and I don’t have a title but here’s my opinion and I can’t hide behind a newspaper or magazine masthead.

[Online journalism] is much more like performance art. I would compare the skill set [with that of] a radio talk show host. They talk to each other, they interview people and they take calls, and 50 percent of the callers are regular commentators. We as audience participants love to listen to the conversation. Blogs in particular have that same kind of conversation. On Searchblog, there are three to four times more comments than there are posts from me, and I would say that of the 10,000 comments on the site, probably 50 to 100 people are responsible for 8,000 of them.

OJR: Then how much freedom do you grant to them? Do you restrict usage or do users have to earn the right to comment?

Battelle: No, anyone can comment, but I will delete comments that are off-topic or that are obviously for self-gain. You have to be a moderator of the conversation. Journalists are very good at this, particularly the ones who are good at interviews because they know how to keep things on topic.

OJR: Searchblog is a member of your current publishing venture, Federated Media. Describe the general philosophy behind FM.

Battelle: The general idea is that not all journalists or authors who can draw a community want to be the CEO of a publishing company. They care about getting paid but aren’t very interested in selling ads. They care about making the site look good, but they don’t want to take care of the back end. They don’t want to necessarily hire and manage an accountant and controller, but they certainly care that their check comes on time.

After working on Searchblog for a while, it struck me that the site had gotten to the size of a respectable trade magazine, and I could tell the audience was pretty influential. So as a publisher I was thinking if I had 50,000 influential people reading a publication, it could be a real publication, but I didn’t want to do that again.

Meanwhile, Boing Boing came to me and said our hosting bill is way too high we can’t keep doing this little hobby of ours, so maybe we can figure out a way to turn it into a business. I started working with them on doing that and it struck me that between my site, which was a mini Industry Standard, and Boing Boing, which was more like Wired, there might be something there.

So I started looking for other sites and thought what if we federated all of our inventory? It struck me that the only way to really maintain a high quality of sites was to maintain a reasonably small number of them. These are not $1 or $2 RPM (revenue per thousand page views) sites, these are at least $15 to $20 RPM sites, and they needed to present themselves to advertisers as worthy of that premium. So, we’re now at about 85 or 90 sites and we have federations in various categories, including media and entertainment, tech, parenting and automobile markets.

OJR: So FM sites have already met a certain criteria.

Battelle: Right. They have a validated audience. We’ve done demographic surveys, we’ve joined comScore, we’ve done all the things we do if you’re a real media company. Yet Searchblog is never going to spend $35,000 to join comScore. But FM is going to spend that $35,000 and everyone in our network is now in comScore–that’s the power of federation. And many of the sites that are small cast large shadows. Even though Jeff Jarvis’ site (www.buzzmachine.com) isn’t that big, it’s influential. Marketers like that mix, you get reach and good demographics.

OJR: What do you think the journalism sites on FM have accomplished to get to that point?

Battelle: For the most part the sites that have risen to influence, particularly in the technology sector, are sites that are written by people who are seasoned journalists. I think one of the reasons these sites are so influential is that they’re so read by journalists who have crossed the bridge from the conversational medium back into the packaged goods medium and write second-day, more definitive pieces. You see that a lot in The New York Times, and you know the political writers and tech writers are reading those blogs.

OJR: Especially considering the importance of user participation. The blogger may initiate the conversation, but the important piece of information is the conversation itself, not just the initial posting.

Battelle: Blogs have become archival footage in a way. I’m often referred back to posts I wrote six months ago or a year ago. One of the early examples of a major company breaking news through a blog is when Amazon let me break the news that they were getting into the search game. Later, Amazon announced that they were going to launch [a search site called] A9. Someone wrote me recently and said, remember that post? The A9 thing seems to be going away. I reread the post and 20 comments. When you see it as a whole, it’s really a powerful statement and [sometimes] the comments far outweigh the pure words of the post itself.

OJR: According to a recent post on the FM site, you’re not adding any new authors until you make sure everyone’s happy with what you’ve got.

Battelle: We’ve built momentum … so I had to make a business decision. Some of the FM sites have very ambitious plans. We have a different kind of conversation with them. But for the sites who are doing it on their own for the first time, we help them decide whether they should bring on an editor and how to use financing. There might be a time at which they want to hire their own sales force and fire FM. Frankly I expect that to happen and I expect to lose some sites at some point.

OJR: What if one of your bigger sites starts expanding on a huge scale right away? How do you decide whether FM should grow to accommodate it?

Battelle: That’s a very good question. With some of our sites that are bigger and have significant revenue opportunity like Digg or Boing Boing, we have to make sure that this still a true partnership, and we always have to be asking [whether it’s still] making sense. This is not a new model in terms of business, but in terms of the media business, it’s kind of new ground.

OJR: You posted a response on your blog about the Washington Post’s recent attempt to offer to sell ads on blogs and split the revenue with bloggers. Do you think it’s a profitable idea?

Battelle: I believe there’s a place for it. There’s no doubt that traditional media can and will continue, but it has a hard hump to get over. Traditional media is in the business of sort of corralling talent. [As a newspaper reporter], you don’t talk to readers. Your job is to talk to your sources. Institutionally, these organizations have grown up managing reporters, not talent. When I was editing at Wired, my job was to produce writers and manage 50-150 talented, half-crazy freelance writers, and I think it really got me ready to do what I’m doing now. People with influential blogs are talent and they don’t want to be told what to write about.

OJR: So, is the Post trying to copy the Federated Media model?

Battelle: It’s similar, but I don’t think it’s copying any more than I copied the ad rep/book publishing/music label/talent agency model. There’s a lot of great content out there and we all want to figure out a way to get involved in it.

OJR: In your book, “The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture” (Portfolio, a Penguin imprint), one of the principal theories that you describe is the “database of intentions.” What will the implications of search mechanisms be for online journalists over the next few years?

Battelle: The key thing here is that anything that has existed online will exist online forever and the privacy issues, the citizen versus state issues and the corporation versus reporter issues are profound because now so much exists. I don’t think that culturally we’ve really gotten very far in the discussion of what it all means.

Think about it: Every place you go, everything you do, everything you click on- it’s all meta data. And what really got me excited is that my great-grandchildren can access my searches. That’s an artifact that I want to give them. I’d like to have access to and editing rights to that information, but right now that’s an artifact that I don’t own.

Knight News Challenge offers millions for online news innovation

Have you been kicking around an idea for a new community news website? The Knight Foundation has a few million reasons why you ought to give it a go.

The Knight Foundation is putting up $25 million over the next five years to encourage journalists and Web developers to find new ways to use the Internet to help improve the quality of life in geographic communities. The Knight Brothers 21st Century News Challenge will award up to $5 million this year “to fund new ideas, prototypes, products and leadership initiatives that use innovative news methods to help citizens better connect within their communities.”

Anyone can apply: individual journalists, news companies, hackers with a dream. The deadline for submitting a letter of inquiry is December 1.

Gary Kebbel is the Journalism Initiatives Program Officer for the Knight Foundation. He spoke on the phone with OJR about the Challenge.

OJR: What kind of thinking, or action, are you hoping to encourage with this initiative?

Kebbel: I think a lot of what we think of as not getting traction is research and development in the news industry. We want to help spur that. But we’re also looking at non-news industry companies that are doing research and development and creating new products. But they’re not necessarily being created by people who have news values and principles and ethics. We want to make sure that we can help those in the news industry with the values of seeking the fair, accurate, contextual search for truth and to help them develop new products that help them stay strong.

Sort of a genesis for this was looking around and realizing that there was a time period when the publisher of a paper – and we’re saying, particularly the publisher of a Knight newspaper – was the glue of the community. In the way that, they not only were good citizens, they participated in community life. But by presenting the news, they helped identify problems, and they helped bring people together for common solutions. Now, as people transfer their news seeking or information seeking to cyberspace, who is doing in cyberspace what a Knight publisher used to do in real space? Who is performing that function of bringing the community together, and helping them solve problems? And improve their lives? So, with those sort of questions in mind, and in the idea that we felt that the news industry needed some help, we created this news challenge.

OJR: One of the distinguishing characteristics of online publishing that we’ve seen at this point, is that there are a lot of vibrant communities out there. But they’re organized around topics, subjects, rather than geography. Talk a little bit about that, and what the implications for that might be for this endeavor.

Kebbel: Obviously the requirement that the communities effect people in physical space in real life, is an addition requirement. Because we don’t feel that online communities need our help. Virtual communities spring up every day. But using digital communities to enhance physical communities, we think does need our help. And the reason we’re focusing on physical communities is because we simply want to perform the functions that a good news organization should, we think. Which is, to help improve the lives of people where they live and work. And it boils down to physically getting people together and trying to improve their actual, real lives.

OJR: But might it not be possible that some people or organizations putting together these virtual communities might develop some type of technology that then could be applied to the physical geographic community that would then be worthy of consideration?

Kebbel: Oh, yes. If a digital community helps people get together in real life, that qualifies. We’re just saying, for example, a community of model railroaders around the world is not one that we’ve designed this news challenge for. But something that might bring together Detroit teachers, that would work.

OJR: Let’s talk a little bit more about specifically who you’re looking for to apply for this. Are you looking for individuals in their home office? Are you looking for a corporate IT department, or something in between?

Kebbel: Everything. We would love it if a brilliant high school kid submits an idea and we get the chance to recognize it for its potential. Typically, foundations give money to other non-profit organizations. And what we’re doing that’s different with this, is that we’re giving money – or saying that we are able to and planning to – give money to individuals, to other non-profits, or to commercial entities or to for-profit companies. It could be a company with two employees, who are trying to get off the ground. It could be an arm of a much more established company, if indeed what that arm is doing is creating a product that helps improve life in physical communities.

OJR: Looking through the website that you’ve set up for this – one of the first things that struck me is that the criteria here is vague. And, as you say, purposely so. But one of the interesting things I saw in there was, you did get a little bit more specific when you’re talking about what you’re not looking for.

Kebbel: You know, you’re the second person to say that.

Well, what we’re not looking for are things that are already there, obviously. A new way to use a blog is probably not going to make it. Or – it’s sort of difficult to say what we’re not looking for, because overall, the thing is so broad. One thing, though, is the training program thing is important. This foundation has supported journalism training very heavily, since its founding in 1950. And so, we really wanted to point out that what we’re looking for here is probably so new that it’s not possible to have a training program for it yet.

OJR: Another one of the issues that comes up to this sort of thing is – it’s great when you’ve got something like this happening. You get a little initial source of funding for it, but what about the long term sustainability? Tell me a little bit about the awards process. Will people be able to renew them, or is there an expectation that this will get you up to the level where something is sustainable?

Kebbel: Well, we’ve broken it into various categories. And let’s take the very first one, ideas. And these categories we thought sort of mimicked a product creation stage, or process. Let’s say that someone wins the idea award in year one. We would love it if they would come back in year two, and try to get a pilot project award for the same program. And then the thing about the pilot project or field test is that we do want there to be a sustainability plan, as part of that. We don’t have any set limit on either the number of grants, or the amount of grants that we’re going to make in each of these categories. We’re literally going to judge it against the number of the quality of proposals that we have in. And some of these proposals might be for $30,000, and some might be for $300,000. We’re not going to say that one is better than the other, until we look at the proposal and what we think it has the chance of accomplishing. But you’re right. Obviously, I think we will give preference to those that seem to have the best sustainability possibilities.

OJR: One of the things I saw that was alluded to on the site, that’s always interesting, and maybe you can expand on it a little bit, was the concept of, if something looks fundable, that not only could there be an award, but also you could help network to introduce people to venture capitalists.

Kebbel: You’re absolutely right. Because we’re a foundation, and are legally set up to give money to other nonprofits, there are different legal hoops that we would have to jump through to give money to a for-profit. Now, there are ways to do it legally. That’s one possibility: A flat out “we want to invest in your company.” Either as an angel investor, or a second-round investor. But we also thought there are other ways to serve this function of bringing new products to the market. When young companies go up in front of VCs—you know, VCs are always trying to hit a home run. And home run usually means the potential for 100 percent profit in three months. Well, we would be fine with 40 percent profit. I think there’s a lot of good companies that get dropped off of the VC table because they’re not going to guarantee 100 percent profit.

Our interest is in what they call the double bottom line investing. Which is something that will be profitable, and socially responsible, and serve a social need. So in doing that, we would be glad to take the companies that fell off the VC’s home run list. And match them up with our financial advisor, who is also a VC, or people that our financial advisors know. We’ve been talking to various other foundations that do the work of bringing entrepreneurs together. Because we think it would serve the networking not only of an individual to a group of Vcs, but entrepreneurs to one another.

OJR: Twelve of the 24 months after you announce the winners, the initial winners of these awards, how are you going to be judging the success or the failure of this program?

Kebbel: Because what we’re doing is so new in the first year, we’re actually going to be using it as our guinea pig, and our baseline. So, I’m glad you said 24 months. Because in the year after we’re doing this, we don’t know precisely yet how to judge this. Depending on how new or unique or creative the ideas are, there may not be traditional measures of measurement, at the moment. So, one thing that we’re gonna do is just do it for a year. Let’s see what we get. And then use that as a baseline for trying to start judging what’s out there after it’s been there.

For more information about the Knight Brothers 21st Century News Challenge, or to apply, visit www.newschallenge.org.