At the recent Harvard session on new business models for news, I offered an off-the-beaten-path idea to the question of who will pay for the news. One answer, I said, was non-news organizations: NGOs, trade associations, businesses, governments and labor unions.
Yes, labor unions. There are indications of a back-to-the-future trend in labor funding for the news. Just in the last several months, two labor unions in southern California have provided six-figure funding for very different kinds of operations – Voice of Orange County, an independent news site working toward a January launch, and Accountable California, a direct arm of Local 721, Service Employees International Union.
The idea that legitimate journalism might flow from “special-interest” labor money would have seemed a non-starter to many of us not long ago. How could journalists provide fair and unfettered accounts when their paychecks were the product of an organization with a clear political agenda? In fact, though, Voice of Orange County and Accountable California are simply a revival of a kind of journalism that permeated American life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – labor-backed newspapers.
A few months ago I stumbled on a website kept by the Kansas State Historical Society that listed labor newspapers published in Kansas during that period. There were 95 of them, going by names like Anti-Monopolist, Labor Champion, People’s Vindicator and Vox Populi. Theirs was an era when local markets often had many newspapers, not just one, and each reflected a constituency like labor or business, or one political party or the other, that provided audience and sustenance.
There were plenty of arguments then about what constituted journalism, what was accurate, what was fair. We’re certainly headed for more of them now now, with a likely proliferation of news hybrids that may make the previous era look monolithic by comparison. But don’t discount the potential of newsgathering backed by labor (or myriad other interests) to be the essence of journalism. There’s already powerful evidence that the two can happily coincide, and it’s hard to see why the trend won’t continue.
When I posted notes from my Harvard remarks last week, NYU’s Jay Rosen pointed me to David Beers, editor of The Tyee of Vancouver, British Columbia. I hadn’t realized how long Beers has been toiling in the world of investigative reporting backed in part by labor. He started The Tyee in 2003, with $190,000 in initial funding provided by labor. Quite quickly, he diversified his revenue stream, which now also includes philanthropy, advertising, audience contributions and small grants from the government.
The result is an award-winning nonprofit that’s investigative and progressive at heart, and focuses on the civic life of Western Canada. Beers’ budget this year is about $550,000, and his site last month reached more than 160,000 unique visitors.
“It’s a fantastically hopeful story,” said Beers. “And no, we haven’t solved the business-model problem. But we do terrific journalism that has impact and that journalists can take heart from.”
Beers, in fact, thinks labor won’t be the only special interest that will be funding news gathering in the future. “There are thousands of debates going on that people, institutions can’t afford to lose. They need venues for these debates. They have money. And they need journalism and journalists.”
(Note: I’ll write more about The Tyee in a subsequent post.)
THE VOICE OF ORANGE COUNTY
The business model for the nonprofit Voice of Orange County is fundamentally the same as The Tyee’s: Start with seed money from a labor union, add other revenue streams, and produce independent reporting. In the case of the Voice, though, supporters want to ramp up immediately. Norberto Santana, the Voice’s editor, said the $140,000 contributed by the Orange County Employees Association will be supplemented by private donations that could put the first-year budget north of $600,000. (Eventually, Santana said, the site hopes to diversify through advertising, foundation grants, NPR-style memberships and perhaps premium content).
Santana said the Voice of Orange County will differ from The Tyee in one other respect: Unlike The Tyee’s progressive orientation, Voice will be neutral ideologically. However, he acknowledged that the mission of doing strong accountability reporting in an overwhelmingly Republican area like Orange County may make it look like Voice leans solidly left.
In any case, Santana isn’t concerned that the labor money baked into the Voice’s business plan will skew its coverage. “My only orientation is aggressive watchdog coverage of the local scene,” he said. “What does labor get out of it? Only the guarantee that city hall’s feet will be held to the fire, the same way we’ll hold their fee to the fire. But they know they’re not getting a labor shill out of me.”
The Voice will begin with a staff of 6-8, Santana said, and plans to partner extensively – with public broadcasting, with local and topic-based bloggers and with NGOs like the League of Women Voters. Current plans are to translate significant pieces of the site into Spanish and Vietnamese.
What do you call investigative work that is written by a union staffer and is part of the union’s strategic agenda? Can that be journalism? Is the writer a journalist?
I put those questions to Ted Rohrlich, former award-winning investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times who now is research coordinator for the SEIU local’s research arm. Six months ago it launched a website called Accountable California, whose aim is to produce investigative reporting about the government and its contractors.
Here’s Rohrlich’s answer: “I still think of myself as a journalist,” he said. “But I also think of myself as a staff member of a labor union with strategic goals. So I think skepticism of my work is not inappropriate. But this exercise is pointless if it doesn’t have credibility.”
Here’s one way in which his role is different. Rohrlich’s initial investigation was about the nonprofit Tarzana Treatment Center, which gets 85 percent of its money from the government. According to his reporting, the treatment center spent $22 million in government funds over the last 11 years on inappropriate benefits for company insiders. Interestingly, the Los Angeles Times ended up beating Rohrlich on some of the story. But here’s the difference. Rohrlich’s story wasn’t just for public discussion; it was a dossier that the union took to the attorney general’s office, where it’s demanding action.
“The Los Angeles Times would have the chips fall where they may,” said Steve Askin, who hired Rohrlich and heads the union’s overall research effort. “What we did was a detailed report that says to the government: This money should be paid back.”
Askin said part of the rationale for Accountable California is to respond to the vacuum that’s developed in coverage of labor issues. Labor beats used to be standard fare at metropolitan newspapers; today they’re almost non-existent. But he said the SEIU local has two other more specific goals: putting a face on public employees more favorable than the one people normally see, and acting as a counter-weight against the government.
Mixing journalism and an agenda like that would be in the realm of high treason at the Los Angeles Times, but Rohrlich said he’s perfectly at home with his role, and comfortable in asking the public to buy it.
That’s not journalism as I practiced it, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have its own validity. We’re almost certain to see more of it.
Update: Josh Kalven has flagged me about the Progress Illinois site he edits. The site launched in 2008 under sponsorship of the SEIU Illinois State Council.