A recipe for journalism that works

This article is one of three being co-published by The Nation and CJR as part of a special issue of The Nation on “Media in the Trump Era,” available online in full on March 2.

Donald Trump has a bully’s nose for the vulnerable and the defenseless, and he sees the American media as both.

The White House’s vicious attacks on the press and the often-timid response from journalists stem from the fact that, as a business, the press at this moment couldn’t be more exposed: Most of the biggest media companies in the country still haven’t settled on a business plan that works (and the smaller ones, in ever-larger numbers, are simply closing up shop); reporters continue to lose their jobs; and magic-bullet answers that once offered hope for turning things around—video or live events or virtual reality—seem to disappoint by the day.

No wonder the ridicule from Sean Spicer and Steve Bannon, propelled by historically low approval ratings for journalists, has turned into an existential threat to journalism that is gleefully fanned by the commander in chief. There’s nothing new on the horizon, no business-model savior set to rescue media companies at the very moment they are facing their most critical journalistic test. There are, though, strands of hope, little bits of ideas that are working, albeit in limited ways. By mixing and matching them, we can begin to compile a recipe for a new journalistic model that may work—emphasis on the may.

 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

 

“Free” is not a business model.

We can now bury for good any hope that giving away content and paying the bills solely through online advertising is a sustainable media strategy. The digital-ad revenue simply isn’t there to support real journalism. As a result, digital-only shops like Mashable and Medium are sharply scaling back. On the flip side, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are proving that paywalls can work, even on a massive scale, while niche sites like The Information, in tech, and Politico and Axios, in politics, are insisting that readers pay for detailed scoops about their respective industries.

The message from readers is they’re willing to pay for information that tracks closely with their interests and worldviews, while more generic content is falling off. This threatens to create a new kind of content divide: higher-quality and more accurate journalism for those who can pay, less accurate and more trivial reporting (not to mention fake news, which has no subscription future) for those who can’t. The higher the price, the more insidery the information: Axios, launched in January by the team behind Politico, eventually wants to charge $10,000 a year for its inside-the-Beltway news feed. That may make sense for lobbyists and others looking to make government a profit center, but it’s pretty much out of the question for everyone else.

One all-too-plausible outcome is that access to the information the public needs to meaningfully participate in self-governance will become even more two-tiered: The well-off will receive accurate and timely news, while the struggling will have to settle for unprofessional, misleading “news” that costs them nothing but the effort required to wade through a barrage of down-market advertising. This scenario, in turn, will play into the hands of anti-journalism tyrants, who will be able to point—correctly—to a popular press that is ever less credible.

 

The old competitive walls don’t apply.

David Fahrenthold, The Washington Post’s breakout star of the 2016 election, was lionized by other reporters for his scoops (particularly about Trump’s nonexistent charity work), but also because of the way he approached his job. Fahrenthold’s default mode was complete transparency: He would tweet about what he was working on before it was published; he’d ask competing reporters for leads, and lavishly praise competitors for their scoops. The result was a wiki-style reporting model that runs counter to the siloed world of big media. In return, he was rewarded with tips from competitors who normally would have guarded them jealously, and his paper saw a significant increase in readers and visibility.

Fahrenthold’s approach is spreading, as news executives recognize that no outlet has the resources to chase every lead or staff every possible investigation. Far-reaching joint investigations like those that sorted through the Panama Papers grab the most headlines, but dozens of other joint efforts have news organizations working together in ways they never before would have imagined. The Center for Investigative Reporting has allied with NPR, Politico with The New York Times Magazine; the publication I edit, the Columbia Journalism Review, has collaborated on an election oral history with The Guardian.

Trump’s efforts to paint the press as a single, objectionable monolith has had an unexpected side effect, drawing journalists and news organizations closer together to leverage a reporting pool that had been drained by budget cuts. It seems possible that by the end of Trump’s first term, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal—the three most influential newspapers in America—will pool their resources on a massive joint project that none of them could have accomplished alone. Take it to the bank: The president’s name will be in the lede.

 

“First, get a million dollars.”

That’s Steve Martin’s classic tip on how to become a millionaire. It’s been clear for several years that the most direct path to producing good journalism is a variation on that line: “First, get a rich patron.” ProPublica has built a reporting powerhouse thanks in part to the largesse of California’s Sandler family; The Intercept has Pierre Omidyar; The Washington Post’s resurgence wouldn’t have happened without tens of millions of dollars in seed money from Jeff Bezos. Money aimed explicitly at breaking scoops has been provided by the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund, the Pulitzer Center, the Marshall Project, and the group Investigative Reporters and Editors.

In a category all its own is the Guardian Media Group, which benefits from a unique form of patronage, the Scott Trust. The trust was established in 1936 under legal arrangements that explicitly forbid the trust’s officers from interfering in any way with the editorial independence of its media properties, which now include The Guardian, The Guardian Weekly, the Sunday Observer, and TheGuardian.com.

It may well be that the best journalism in the future will come disproportionately from nonprofits, which have the time and patience and money to produce it. The Texas Tribune in Austin continues to lead the state with its political coverage, while ProPublica is expanding into Illinois to counter the hollowing-out of that state’s local and regional news organizations. Nevertheless, it’s questionable whether relying solely on philanthropic funding can ensure a thriving journalistic future over the long term. Eventually, a commercial revenue stream must also help out.

What does hold promise is a combination of nonprofit and for-profit structures, with the former helping to support the latter. In Charlottesville, Virginia, a group of citizens, concerned by the dearth of local coverage on some key issues, raised money to create a nonprofit outlet, Charlottesville Tomorrow, in 2005. As of 2009, the print and digital publication has been sharing its work with The Daily Progress, the city’s longtime paper. Today, 60 percent of the Progress’s local stories come from Charlottesville Tomorrow, freeing the daily to focus its reporting and resources on longer-term projects.

Likewise, in Philadelphia, Gerry Lenfest, the owner of the city’s two dailies and the Philly.com website, is merging for-profit and nonprofit missions in an innovative way. In January 2016, Lenfest donated his three media properties to the newly created Lenfest Institute for Journalism, a tax-exempt organization controlled by the nonprofit Philadelphia Foundation. Thus, the two newspapers and website can receive tax-deductible donations to keep real journalism alive. A related goal of this strategy is to find new answers to the digital-media and business-model questions that vex other papers of similar size around the country. Lenfest installed Jim Friedlich, a former Wall Street Journal business executive, to run the institute, and Friedlich has already set off on a road trip to share his findings with other papers.

 

The partisan press finally arrives.

We’ve read a lot since the election about the end of down-the-middle political reporting by national publications. Once The New York Times decided to call Trump out as a liar on its front page, any notion that it was neutral in the election ended. While the media’s high priests continue to debate whether that’s good or bad for journalism, this much is clear: It’s great for business.

If the end of ad-supported digital media means that big traffic numbers matter less, and engaging readers with a willingness to pay matters more, then the polarization of the media into political camps makes all the economic sense in the world. While outlets like The Nation and The New Republic have been playing the affinity game for years, building a base of support among an impassioned core of readers, the new approach seeks to transform this affinity into a bona fide business model, turning people’s partisan leanings into a willingness to pay up. Fox News has shown that being brazenly partisan can translate into both viewers and ad revenue. Across the political divide, outlets like MSNBC are catching up. (Al Gore’s Current TV, which would have thrived in this climate, was simply too early to the game.)

On the digital side, Breitbart has become the Fox of the online world, and Crooked Media was recently launched by former Obama aides as a Breitbart for the left. Since the Times and, to a lesser degree, the Post took on a more openly adversarial stance during the election, the digital traffic at both papers has broken records. The numbers have also surged for ProPublica, Slate, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and others (including the Columbia Journalism Review). The fear among media executives has long been that increased partisanship necessarily shrinks your audience, since those who don’t agree will turn away. And that certainly does happen. But those arguments didn’t take into account the power of apathy: For a very long time, most Americans simply didn’t care what the news media had to say. Now they do. And the result—an engaged, motivated, hungry audience—is energizing news outlets no longer stuck in the middle of the road.

 

To the great chagrin of traditionalists, personalities matter.

It has taken a surprisingly long time for big media organizations to recognize that people don’t read brands or institutions; they read people. This was the election cycle in which reporters finally emerged as bona fide media brands, at least as much a draw for viewers and readers as the outlet itself. Katy Tur at NBC, Craig Silverman at BuzzFeed, Olivia Nuzzi at The Daily Beast (and now New York magazine), Maggie Haberman at The New York Times—all of them became go-to sources for consumers increasingly baffled by the diversity of choices on offer. All brought with them a sensibility that seemed to borrow more from the op-ed pages than from traditional news. But they also seemed to sense intuitively that a personality and point of view were precisely what readers were craving. Their employers were rewarded with stronger traffic and reader loyalty.

 

You have to be everywhere.

Publishers continue to dither about how to deal with the big social networks. That’s what a rear-guard action looks like. One way or another, most people in America increasingly get their news from social-media sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. Being in those places (and on Apple News and Google News and Snapchat and so on), in as big a way as possible, is critical to rebuilding the news business. Yet that still isn’t how most big media companies see it. They continue to obsess about ways to protect their turf and keep their content fenced in. They gripe about a business relationship with the tech world that seems to cast them in the role of supplicant.

The Washington Post has taken the opposite approach, to great and surprising success. The Times hands over only a couple of dozen stories a day to Apple News; the Post provides hundreds. While most newsrooms are still working to resolve the internal battles between print and the Web, at the Post the Web—and the app, the podcast, and the Twitter feed—have already won. It’s the demands of Web publishing that determine Post reporters’ deadlines, not the print press run, and Web success is what determines whether top executives get a bonus.

The lesson here is not that the Post is succeeding because it has a rich benefactor, though that’s clearly true. It’s because the paper has dared to tinker with the DNA of publishing. It views itself as a content generator, then looks for ways to blast that content out to the world. It’s the information version of the great dot-com bonanza of the late 1990s: Grab the market share, gather the customers, then find ways of making them pay.

 

Show up in person.

Doing successful journalism today often means, as Bill O’Reilly might put it, doing it live. Before joining the Columbia Journalism Review, I ran a group of hyper-local weeklies in Manhattan—small-town news in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world. It soon became clear that finding a way to create some kind of village green, even if only for an afternoon, was crucial in building loyalty and support for our local news. So we held election forums and town-hall meetings (on everything from pedestrian safety to the death of small businesses), and we even rented an RV, parked it on the street, and invited readers to come visit our “mobile newsroom.” (They did, on the Upper East and Upper West Sides, lining up down the block.)

Surprisingly, the digital-news outlets enjoying the most success with younger audiences—the demographic that spends the most time staring at a screen—are also the most aggressive about putting people together in the same physical place. But the demands of conference booking can get journalistically tricky. Can you write critically about someone you’ve just wooed to appear on a panel for an event you hope to make money from? Can you take on a company that’s just agreed to underwrite your cocktails? These may be ethical questions that journalists can no longer afford to ask.

 

This is a recipe, not a blueprint. Some of these ideas will work; others will fail. New problems will crop up, but so will new opportunities. Fundamentally, I’m optimistic. We have moved beyond the existential question of whether journalism will continue to exist. It is time to tackle the more interesting and exciting question of what the new business model will be. We should do so with the confidence that an audience for quality, hard-hitting, challenging work is out there, just waiting to be reached. That’s not a bad place to be.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Kyle Pope is the Editor in Chief and Publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.