Do we really need large organizations to do good journalism?

Yesterday, USC Annenberg’s director Geneva Overholser tweeted:

I seek names of 10 most interesting thinkers (not pronouncers) on how we will support journalism in the future: scholars, journalists et al.

I don’t presume to count myself among the 10 most interesting people in anything, much less thinking, but Geneva’s tweet did inspire a few thoughts, which I considered important enough to share.

First, my experience in both traditional and independent online publishing leads me to believe that the core methods of supporting reporting have not, and will not change as a result of the Web’s emergence. Advertising, purchases, organizational grants and individual donations have supported everything from newspapers to magazines to NPR stations in the past and are continuing to support many websites today.

As I wrote earlier this week, advertisers remain eager to support publications that cover their market, and others individuals and organizations are willing to help support community-building publishers in other ways, including sponsorships and direct underwriting of coverage.

What has changed is the number of publications chasing those supporting funds. That means less money, per publication, than newsrooms could count on receiving in the past. Still, as I’ve seen from personal experience and heard from others in the field, there remains adequate funding available to support individual reporters in many communities.

What’s harder to come by is enough money to pay for multiple layers of editing behind those reporters, as well as corporate managers overseeing those editors. Not to mention traditional sales commissions, expense accounts, downtown offices and… here’s the big one, stockholder profits.

Simply put, while a highly competitive Internet publishing market can provide enough ad and direct payment revenue to support reporting, it can no longer routinely provide the funding to support a traditional corporate model for journalism, one that demands a deep organizational chart and significant annual profits.

That corporate model did provide great value to journalism in the past, of course. Its managers and ad representative leveraged financial support from communities, allowing journalists to do their reporting unconcerned with that work.

Without those payment for those additional bodies, the work of leveraging community financial support falls to the reporters (and few remaining editors) themselves, a task that few are trained to do.

That’s one of the reasons why OJR and KDMC and presenting a News Entrepreneur Boot Camp in Los Angeles next month: to help train a small group of journalists how to build, identify and leverage the support of a community in funding their reporting work. I will be writing about the camp during its run, May 16-21, sharing some of the lessons learned with OJR readers.

But there’s another issue at hand here, which brings me to my second thought – upon the ethical issue that leads many within our field to insist that the old corporate model is the only appropriate form of journalism.

Again, as I wrote earlier this week, the very appropriate ideal that advertising support from a particular source should not directly influence a publication’s coverage of that source led to the create of an organizational chart “wall” between editorial and advertising, under the old corporate model.

If one agrees with the new model I’ve described, that concept of the wall can no longer exists, simply because there are not enough people remaining at the publication to divide responsibilities that way. Certainly, it can’t exists in that sense at one-person news websites, for example.

In the new model I’ve described, the “wall” becomes an internal ethical challenge, that leads journalists to separate the work of reporting from the work of soliciting, managing and serving advertising accounts. (Or grant and donation sources, as well. They can be, and often are, powerful institutions within a community. Non-profit status confers no immunity from such concerns upon a newsroom.)

That’s not enough for some advocates of the old ways. So, instead they approach the question of how to support journalism not from the perspective of supporting original reporting, per se, but of supporting a traditional, deep organizational chart that allows for a division of labor – advertising from editorial, reporting from editing, etc.

I believe that many online news organizations will one day evolve to the point where they can earn enough revenue to support a deep org chart. But I’ve also seen many that tried to support one out of the gate soon close, unable to pay for its substantial cost.

Small organizations can do robust work. Instead of handling all tasks of reporting and editing in house, they can leverage the abilities of their communities to build substantial reporting work. Witness some of the crowd-sourced vetting of Friday “document dumps” done by small sites such as Talking Points Memo, for example. (TPM Media grew from a one-person blog, by the way.) Small and one-person news sites can work with one another, as well, to build and share traffic and reporting resources. Large-scale investigative reporting need not be sacrificed under a new, small-scale organizational model.

So we can continue to support journalism online, with the same sources that have supported journalism in the past. All that’s changing is the organizational structure by which that support flows to those reporters. Unfortunately, to some, that organizational structure is as, or even more important, to some people in our field than the reporting itself. I think we need to keep that in mind as we look for thinkers on this issue.

Here is the question for them: What are you really trying to support?

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. Here’s another question: Should writers (or photogs or videographers) really be required to be accountants and sales reps and administrators and programmers as well?

    I am by no means a fan of the big-business school of journalism but a certain amount of that is a necessity if a community hopes to have the type of thorough news coverage that it needs. It’s the same reason we have reporters cover city commission meetings: They’re long, boring and frequently unintelligible and it’s not reasonable to expect every nurse, mechanic and park ranger in town to pay attention to the meetings themselves. Reporters should be there to keep track of things like that and boil them down for the community that can’t be everywhere at once. Similarly, programmers and ad reps should be there to do what they’re good at so that reporters can focus on what they do.

    Now, there is one thing that gets my goat: That big old stone building downtown with the newspaper’s name on it. The one that’s underutilized and must cost a fortune just in taxes not to mention insurance and upkeep and utilities. It would seem to me that a savvy news organization would be able to buy some laptops, go wireless and decentralize their operations. Just a thought.

  2. Whenever the season of summer comes many of us goes to swimming pool and beaches or even go for hiking to take some off or vacation into all usual tiring days. As summer is here (unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere and North Poles) and that means that the electric bill is going up. Air conditioning gets expensive, as is heating, as summer and winter are the seasons that send the electric bill up with abandon. A lot of people get sent running for a payday loan to cover the utilities bill. One of the things you can do to save money is to save electricity. Appliances you can afford to not run all the time should be turned off or unplugged. Turn the light off when you leave any room. Use Energy Star rated appliances if possible. If you follow smart energy practices, then you probably won’t need installment loans for the electric bill. The things to remember on how to avoid big loans are to save more and spend your cash wisely, try to live a simple life and enjoy things that are affordable and useful every now and then.

  3. i always ask this to myself again and again.. “What are you really trying to support? ” :D:D But i have hope for more waiting 😀 gezi rehberi

  4. says:

    i think within the new localized citizen journalism project, the emphasis will be for donations based model-ethical and community funded stories, the old idea of corporate model is dying. the new model is very web 2.0, use of niches of citizen networks of mult0discpinary teams working with one another, exchanging ideas-one could cross team with ones persons skills for flexibility. each network is within a area could be broken down to even more niche block teams of central area team co-ordinator of say the area ambassador which represents its area when meeting other ambassador reps from other areas-we see this on twitter search for online communities. then ambassador is broken down into a host-welcomes new visitors to the area-further broken down into core reps from say journalism to area partnership assoc, community officer, political official, enterprise board rep etc. all these partners working alongside the central journalism agency who employs reporters to train citizens on stories, in return for traditional media to work on more localized content and sales in return.

  5. I think for the main breaking news stories yeah… we need the major networks. For things such a Swine flu, but for alot of things online and offline the best general bespoke stories come from smaller sources.
    I suppose thats what makes them special, and if you took away the big networks you might lose the special edge the smaller news breakers have.

    Alan – elottery syndicate

  6. says:

    The ‘chinese Wall’ between ad sales and reporting is too important to be dismissed lightly. We may not need large orgnisations to generate income, that can be done on an agency basis with one ad-sales person/team selling on behalf of many small news providers. But there is another problem. Large organisations with deep pockets can afford big legal fees and therefore can afford big risks. Lone reporters are less able to be robust when faced with legal challenges from powerful corporations or agencies. Our small teams/lone reporters may need pooled collective libel insurance too. (Tim Luckhurst, Professor of Journalism, Kent, UK)