5 Pieces of Good News About the News
My great predecessor in this column, David Carr, wrote at a time when the conventional wisdom was that the internet was destroying journalism.
But David’s eye was drawn to the interesting and the new, like Gawker and The Huffington Post or Twitter and WikiLeaks. Those of us who worked in the thrilling new world of online journalism were pleased to receive the gruff visitor, his head at a tilt, as he took in the exploding media world.
This is a very different time in the news business, with giant companies including The New York Times leading a wave of consolidation and many of the start-ups that Mr. Carr loved long gone. Around the world, digital news outlets that shattered the status quo, from Manila to Moscow, are hanging on for dear life. And yet in the United States, there’s also a generation of ventures growing up in the cracks in the sidewalk, fueled by a new sense of mission in American journalism and by the sheer quantities of money, private and nonprofit, floating around.
I’ve been writing this column through a pretty dark year, and even before I started I had a long Google doc full of story ideas. Now, 16 months in and heading out for my first weeks off, I realize I’ve erred on the side of revealing messy conflicts and damaging decisions. Only occasionally have I highlighted people and companies doing things that are really new and interesting — but which you may not have heard of — in some of the hardest parts of media: local news, investigative journalism and even finding common ground. It is, to me, an inspiring list, and a suggestion that there’s a lot of open space to be filled in.
News From the Ground Up
Sarah Alvarez, a former public radio reporter and producer in Detroit, contends that local news needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, beginning with simple text messages to residents that tell them how to get help with their gas bills. The idea is compelling in theory but just incredibly hard work. Until the pandemic, her Outlier Media was a bit of a curiosity in nonprofit media circles and she said she had resigned herself to finding a larger organization to merge with.
But when the coronavirus hit, she, Outlier’s executive director, Candice Fortman, and two other colleagues suddenly found themselves drowning in texts, responding directly to about 200 Detroit residents a day, on everything from unemployment payments to vaccines. This is not what most of us think of as journalism — Ms. Alvarez calls it “pre-news.” And her theory is that a new public media — she has no interest in the for-profit business of media — can rebuild trust and a connection. She says it can grow from a text service that tells you where to find government programs into a digital outlet that seeks to answer bigger civic questions.
The idea is catching on. Nonprofit news outlets from URL Media and The City in New York to The Oaklandside in Oakland, Calif., have also begun thinking about the “information needs” of residents. And Outlier has been finding big donors and taking small steps into the more traditional news business, acquiring a newsletter that covers development in Detroit called The Dig.
Outlier’s text-based service is still reaching thousands, not millions, and the challenge for Ms. Alvarez’s theory is whether it can ever scale to reach a meaningful share of a city’s residents. She’s optimistic. In a manifesto she wrote in March, she made the case for “making sure the bottom of the pyramid is strong.”
A Reporter vs. the N.R.A.
Media moneymen sometimes complain about how expensive investigative journalism is. But seen through another lens, it’s incredibly cheap. Critics of America’s runaway gun culture have spent decades and many millions of dollars trying and failing to break the hold of the National Rifle Association over American politics.
Then, a small investigative news outfit that focuses on guns, The Trace, assigned a single reporter, Mike Spies, to the story. After years of reporting around the edges, he developed sources close to the organization who pointed him away from its vitriolic politics and toward its accounting practices. Mr. Spies revealed, in a series of blockbuster pieces that The New Yorker published with The Trace, that the N.R.A.’s executives had made millions of dollars illicitly from an unconventional relationship with its P.R. firm. He wasn’t the only reporter on the beat — The Wall Street Journal’s Mark Maremont and Danny Hakim at The Times also broke big, early news. But the tiny nonprofit played a central role in the story.
“It’s a hard target, and being part of a small start-up newsroom and trying to cover an organization like the N.R.A. is tough,” The Trace’s editor in chief, Tali Woodward, said. “He just kept at it.”
Reporting by Mr. Spies and others on allegations that the N.R.A. had abused its nonprofit status prompted a lawsuit by the New York attorney general, who is seeking essentially to shut down the organization. The N.R.A. recently petitioned a Texas judge to be allowed to declare bankruptcy and then move to Texas, though its petition was denied. Its fall is a testament to the power of focused, diligent investigative reporting.
An Aggressive New Way to Cover the Climate
The urgency of climate change and big companies’ new focus on marketing themselves as forces for social good have produced a new industry of “carbon offsets.” The idea is that companies compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions by counterbalancing emissions somewhere else in the world.
The problem, reporters for Bloomberg Green found, was that many of these moves were meaningless. There was no standard accounting for companies’ claims about what the reporters called “an ethereal token known as a carbon credit,” and no accountability. And so the giant financial news organization created a measure, and began checking the claims made by companies, including BlackRock, JPMorgan Chase and Disney.
Bloomberg is a gazillion-dollar behemoth, not a tiny start-up, and this effort has used the company’s well-developed muscles for parsing data to put pressure on companies to live up to their own claims. A particularly scathing investigation found that the Nature Conservancy, the environmental partner to many top companies, had been selling hundreds of millions of dollars of carbon offsets that did virtually nothing to reduce carbon emissions.
“Just as journalists ‘follow the money,’ in the climate era, we will ‘follow the emissions,’” Bloomberg Green’s editor, Aaron Rutkoff, said in an email. “Eventually, reporting on corporate emissions is going to be as standard as reporting on earnings — and missing investor expectations will have the same sort of downside for C.E.O.s.”
Finding Empathy on YouTube
You’ve read a million articles about media ventures aimed at engaging the youth and bringing people together across partisan divides. And if you have a job like mine, you’ve cringed in reading through well-meaning pitches on these subjects — even as the most successful forms of media mostly divide Americans. When I first talked to Jason Lee, the intensely earnest founder of Jubilee Media, I had that same reaction — there’s no way you’ll go viral on YouTube with all that talk of empathy and goofy conversations among teenage mothers or between Israelis and Palestinians.
But the difference is that Jubilee is working, with 6.5 million subscribers on YouTube and 1.4 billion views, according to the company’s figures. And it says about half its audience is under 25 years old. The company says it has raised $2.25 million from investors, including the Korean conglomerate that produced “Parasite”; the co-founder of the Black millennial media site Blavity, Aaron Samuels; and the N.B.A. player Jeremy Lin.
Mr. Lee, who quit a job as a management consultant at Bain in 2012 to start a predecessor of Jubilee, has a kind of commercial savvy inflected by Christianity. He drew the company’s name from the biblical Jubilee, the year in which debts are forgiven. The general approach reminds me a bit of the fire-breathing right-wing video purveyor PragerU — but if you were trying to fix America, not light it on fire.
“We’re not about Pollyanna niceties, but believe this generation of young people embody a discerning optimism that we desperately need right now,” Mr. Lin told me in an email.
Local Dollars for Local News
The deepest crisis in the country remains the accelerating collapse of the local newspapers that used to cover the City Council, for instance, imperfectly keeping government accountable even if the coverage wasn’t always widely read. With newspapers’ advertising business in ruins, there’s no real path to rebuilding their newsrooms for a digital age. And the real problem is money. A generation of nonprofit newsrooms has begun to pick up the slack, often seeded by national organizations like the Knight Foundation, that have a kind of broad interest in journalism.
But big national donors can’t — and probably shouldn’t — be funding the media everywhere. One piece of good news is that the sorts of local philanthropists who used to donate to the opera or museums now see local journalism as a worthy cause in a path promoted by the American Journalism Project. In Wichita, Kan., the Wichita Community Foundation is set to commit more than $1 million over three years to a new project called The Wichita Beacon (an outgrowth of The Kansas City Beacon), which is in the process of hiring an editor. “This is a part of the evolution of journalism and if charitable support makes sense for the opera, why wouldn’t it make sense for an informed community?” asked Shelly Prichard, the president and chief executive of the Wichita Community Foundation.
Another innovation in funding local media is underway in Colorado. There, a recent Harvard Business School Ph.D., Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, used a leveraged buyout — “the good kind, backed by foundations,” she said — to purchase a chain of local newspapers whose owner had put it up for sale. Ms. Hansen Shapiro, the chief executive and co-founder of the National Trust for Local News, then recruited a small Denver-based digital outlet, The Colorado Sun, to run the newspaper group, in a deal that will turn over control to The Sun as the debt is paid down.
The leveraged buyout, better known for its use by Wall Street raiders, in this case allows local foundations and institutional donors to guarantee loans to buy independent community papers. Ms. Shapiro has also begun making the case for a “local news bond” that anyone can buy to help invest in their own local paper.
She said in an email that roughly $300 million “would be enough to preserve nearly all the independent community papers at risk” in the United States.
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