The Center for Independent Media, with funding from a variety of donors and foundations, operates a network of nonprofit, liberal-leaning political news Web sites in the capitals of Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and New Mexico, all battleground states during the 2008 presidential election. David Bennahum, a journalist and business consultant, launched the sites in 2006 with the stated mission of producing “actionable impact journalism” about “key issues.” Meanwhile, Texas venture capitalist John Thornton and former Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith have raised $3.5 million from Thornton and his wife, other Texas donors, including entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens, and foundations to start the nonprofit Texas Tribune in Austin, where they are hiring fifteen journalists to do independent, multimedia reporting about state government, politics, and policy for its Web site and other Texas news media.
Not surprisingly, most of these startups are financially fragile. In Chicago, a former Tribune reporter, Geoff Dougherty, trained scores of volunteers to help a handful of paid reporters find news in the city’s neighborhoods for his nonprofit Web site, the Chi-Town Daily News. But, in the summer of 2009, after four years of operation with a variety of foundation grants, Dougherty announced he could not raise enough money to keep going as a nonprofit. He said he would instead seek investors for some of kind of commercial local news site.
There are notable startups on the national and international front as well. The for-profit GlobalPost, for example, with money from investors, Web advertising, and fee-paying clients, produces independent foreign reporting with a string of sixty-five professional stringers. On the home front, Politico has a news staff of seventy, and delivers scoops, gossip, and commentary on national politics and government. Revenue comes mostly from advertising online and via its weekly print version, and by corporations and groups seeking to influence legislation and policy.
Meanwhile, as it separates from Time Warner and transitions from an Internet portal to a generator of Web content, AOL also is betting on special-interest, advertising-supported, professionally produced news Web sites like Politico’s. AOL has launched or purchased such Web startups as Politics Daily for politics and government, Fanhouse for sports, for business, and TMZ for celebrities and entertainment. It also is experimenting with small local new sites like Patch.com in suburban New Jersey. And like Politico, AOL has been hiring experienced journalists from struggling news media.
The quality of news reporting by most of the national, regional, and local startups is generally comparable to, and sometimes better than, that of newspapers, as can be seen by their collaboration with traditional newspapers on some stories. Small neighborhood news startups generally report on their communities in more detail than newspapers can, even though the quality of reporting and writing may not be comparable.
Collectively, the newcomers are filling some of the gaps left by the downsizing of newspapers’ reporting staffs, especially in local accountability and neighborhood reporting. However, the staffs of most of the startups are still small, as are their audiences and budgets, and they are scattered unevenly across the country. Their growth, role, and impact in news reporting are still to be determined by a variety of factors explored later in this report.
What kind of news reporting has been spawned by the blogosphere?
The boon and bane of the digital world is its seemingly infinite variety. It offers news, information and, especially, opinion—on countless thousands of Web sites, blogs, and social networks. Most are vehicles for sharing personal observations, activities, and views in words, photographs, and videos—sometimes more than anyone would want to know. A large number also pass along, link to, or comment on news and other content originally produced by established news organizations. And many of the participants—bloggers, political and special interest activists and groups, governments and private companies, and Internet entrepreneurs—generate various kinds of news reporting themselves.