The Wired City doesn’t have anything resembling a central thesis. (This isn’t a flaw. Way too many “future of journalism” books and reports waste their time trying to argue grand, overarching theses that almost always fall apart on closer analysis.) But on the rare occasion that Kennedy does try to make a larger point about the journalism industry, he usually addresses what he sees as the benefits of the nonprofit over the for-profit model in local journalism.
Many of his points regarding the benefits of that model rely on a sloppy taxonomy. (By nonprofit he seems to mean “well-funded nonprofit,” a definition that ignores the many small, bootstrapped nonprofit operations that exist throughout the country.) His conclusion—that for-profits are often smaller and weaker than their nonprofit counterparts—becomes much more complicated when small nonprofits (not to mention the few well-funded, for-profit startups) are thrown into the mix. But his point is certainly true on a case-by-case basis, and his analysis of these cases is worthwhile.
To present one of these cases, Kennedy visits Hartford, CT, where he looks at the for-profit CT News Junkie and the nonprofit CT Mirror. (One weakness of Kennedy’s book is that all but one of the startups he visits is within driving distance of his home in Boston.) Both the Mirror and the News Junkie are run by veterans of the newspaper industry, and both offer quality coverage of statehouse news. But while the News Junkie scrapes by as a for-profit thanks to tireless work by reporter/owner Christine Stuart and her husband and business manager, Doug Hardy, the nonprofit Mirror was “born big, on the strength of $1.8 million in foundation grants intended to pay for its first three years.”
As a result, the Mirror was able to employ nine journalists in 2011, a year in which Stuart had no full-time reporters. Significantly, Kennedy notes that the nonprofit Mirror impeded News Junkie’s hopes of earning revenue off of syndicated content by offering its own statehouse coverage to Connecticut newspapers free of charge.
Kennedy expands his analysis of the for-profit news startup scene by visiting Batavia, NY, where a site called the Batavian earns revenue by running a high volume of small, affordable display ads for local businesses. He also takes a look at Baristanet, based in the affluent New Jersey suburbs, which also earns significant revenue and competes toe-to-toe with Patch, but which isn’t a source of a full-time salary for anyone, journalist or otherwise. Kennedy praises the journalism offered by these sites, but notes that their budgets, newsrooms, and missions are less substantial than those of the Independent and its nonprofit startup brethren. (Kennedy also notes that many of the same challenges faced by small startups are faced by San Diego CityBeat, a struggling alt-weekly, which has shared a city with the nonprofit Voice of San Diego for nearly a decade. When Kennedy dropped by San Diego, CityBeat’s editor was personally updating a database of bar and club listings, a task not required of any of the staff at Voice.)
Kennedy’s conclusion: “[E]ntrepreneurs can launch lively local websites and make enough money to keep them going. What they lack is a business model robust enough to fund the sort of in-depth reporting that we associate with newspapers”—something he argues that the large nonprofits can, in fact, do.
Kennedy should be commended for his honest analysis of the challenges faced by many small for-profit startups, and his acknowledgment of the importance of the work they produce in the face of these challenges. But his conclusion that large nonprofits are in the best position to fill the gaps left by newspapers is a bit too rosy, or at least incomplete. Kennedy does note that while large nonprofits have proven that they can match (and even exceed) newspapers in quality, they have yet to match newspapers and their larger staffs in terms of the volume of coverage they produce.
But a significant oversight is his failure to mention the well-funded for-profits that don’t fit into his “nonprofits=big, for-profits=small” taxonomy. As Kennedy rightly points out, many of the benefits of large nonprofits come from their ability to fund in-depth reporting. And yet I know of at least two significant startups that are able to fund that kind of journalism with a for-profit model. Both This Land Press in Tulsa, OK, and Alaska Dispatch, in Anchorage, were “born big” but owe their genesis to private investment rather than foundation grants. Both produce excellent journalism, and both have made significant gains in earning revenue beyond their investment capital.