Washington, D.C., 2014—By 2009, we were at an impasse. The news business—newspapers in particular—was collapsing, and there was no obvious way to reconstitute it as a business that was capable of providing serious public-interest journalism. Paradoxically, though, the collapse of newspapers as a viable business didn’t reflect a collapse in the public desire for quality news.
We can rightly blame the convergence of portable computers and the Internet for this collapse. Real-time statistics on who is reading what, and when, revealed to advertisers, for the first time, the true scope and engagement of the news audience. The printed page had provided no such information, and that had allowed publishers to overcharge for their inventory—the display of the ad, not the actual reading of the ad, drove revenue. With no leverage to negotiate a better deal, advertisers had accepted this state of affairs. But by 2009, this was the reality from an advertiser’s perspective: real-time statistics on their consumption of ads that often showed a stunningly low return on investment and an oversupply of Web pages providing advertising inventory. The balance of power shifted to advertisers. As a result, online advertising generated a fraction of the revenue, per reader, that print advertising once had generated.
In recent generations, Americans had been conditioned to believe in the infallibility of market forces. We would glibly say, “The market has spoken,” followed by its corollary, “Let the market sort it out.” Yet the free press occupies a special place in our culture and civilization. It’s the fourth branch of self-government. Without it, how can the public be educated on the great (and small) issues of our time?
The press—or at least its most vital, and most expensive, functions—had been sacrificed on the altar of laissez-faire capitalism. What remained were largely the amplifiers of news: cable, most radio, and the Internet aggregators and blogs that repackaged and riffed on the news and information produced by the small handful of serious outlets that continued to invest in newsgathering. In this information ecosystem, propaganda masquerading as news found a ready pathway. The beast had to be fed. The public’s ability to shape coherent public policy suffered.
Small bands of bloggers and citizen journalists gamely tried to fill the void. And from time to time they did, breaking original news of significance. They weren’t paid (or weren’t paid much), however, and thus the key ingredient required to describe a profession was missing: money.
In 2009, the Center for Independent Media was an exception to this rule, one of a handful of organizations producing daily news at the local and national level, through six state-based Web sites that married the speed and intimacy of blogs with the discipline and ambition of investigative journalism. We had, on a good month, over a million visitors through the network, and were positioned to expand to new states in the coming years. Our goal was to become the leading independent online news network in the public interest, by building a network of state sites and a national news site in Washington, D.C., capable of covering the workings of government, politics, and the issues driving public debate. We believed that Congress would never charter an online corporation like PBS or NPR, and that a certain segment of the news-consuming public would nonetheless crave its online equivalent: a trusted source of news, independent of corporate control, valued precisely because it was nonprofit. This was the niche we aimed to fill, and we did so, at first using a combination of private philanthropy and reader support.
Even as our audience grew, it was clear that the technology we used to deliver the news was unsatisfactory. Computers and mobile devices in those days didn’t have the ease of use of paper. Consuming electronic news remained relatively demanding—something that generally happened tethered to a desk or on a small hand-held screen. We were crossing the chasm from one technology to another at a painfully slow pace. Thus the critical need for philanthropy in this nascent period. At the time, it wasn’t clear that philanthropy would be up to the task of keeping public-interest journalism afloat until the technological gap closed and advertising returned to a level that would again begin to cover the journalistic costs. But it was.
The willingness of people with great wealth to support the news marked a return, in a sense, to the nineteenth century. Moguls with an agenda, liberal or conservative, began to fold public-service journalism into their array of media interests, for the purpose of influencing the direction of the country. We saw this in fledgling form in 2008, with Herb and Marion Sandler funding ProPublica. Soon, there were others, primarily driven by a younger generation of millionaires and billionaires who had made their fortunes on the Internet.