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As News Increasingly Moves Online, Who Will Pay For Journalism?

A review of Dan Kennedy's new book, The Wired City.
 
 
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Journalist blogger and professor Dan Kennedy has long been one ofthe go-to guys in the ever-burgeoning field of media criticism. He's an author as well -- and his new book The Wired City asks, and answers, an important question: Does the digital information revolution presage the end of news, or simply the end of newspapers?

It's a question other authors have been raising lately as well, from Nicco Mele in The End of Big to Bob McChesney in Digital Disconnect, both of whom offer analysis of the interplay between journalism and democracy and make valuable points about the need for stronger institutional reactions to our current crisis of media and democracy while forecasting a dystopic future for journalists and journalistic institutions.

And why not? As Kennedy himself points out in an introduction entitled "Apocalypse or Something Like It," by the end of this century's first decade, "it looked like the collapse of the newspaper business that media observers had been predicting for years was finally coming true." After all, more than 40,000 newspaper jobs were being lost in a single year; paid circulation was plummeting; advertising revenue was in free fall; and dozens of dailies had simply given up the ghost. Happily, however, unlike Mele or McChesney, Kennedy finds reason for optimism, and his well-researched and informative look at one small not-for-profit new journalistic enterprise, an online-only neighborhood-oriented news site in Connecticut called the New Haven Independent, offers ample hope for an uncertain future.

Kennedy is a veteran professional journalist, and perhaps that is why he begins by asking the right question: "Since the rise of the commercial Web in the mid 1990s, the question for professional journalists has been: Who shall pay?" With the bottom fallen out of the advertising that once subsidized most journalism, and with readers under the misguided impression that "information wants to be free" and that they no longer have to pay anything for it, Kennedy investigates a promising "third possibility -- namely, neither advertisers nor readers but someone else: community leaders and foundation executives who care about journalism and its role in a democratic society, and who are willing to subsidize it for the benefit of themselves and others."

The decision to examine this third way through an intensely hyperlocal lens is a smart one; not only does the approach mirror that of its subject, but it allows Kennedy to zero in on specific details that, taken together, limn a much larger story. He explores his overall theme in pointillistic fashion, telling a complex but compelling story by illustrating it throughout with interesting anecdotes and characters -- many of them local heroes such as Independent founder Paul Bass -- and concludes that they may have found "not the answer to the question of where we will find quality local journalism in the post-newspaper age" but, at the least, "an answer."

Kennedy is always careful not to claim too much, forthrightly admitting, for example, that "If the rise of nonprofit community news sites is a heartening development, it is also a very small one - especially in comparison to the resources that have vanished from traditional, for-profit journalism." And it's true that the numbers seem daunting; he notes for example how, between 2006 and 2009 alone, "newspapers cut their newsroom budgets by an estimated $1.6 billion each year, for a total of a quarter of their spending on journalism." With both journalism budgets and journalists themselves facing the axe, the question "Who shall pay?" indeed looms large.

Although he could have looked elsewhere in his quest to learn more about the "someone else" model of funding journalism -- and he briefly does examine other local news sites, such as the Batavian, the Voice of San Diego, Baristanet and others -- choosing the story of the Independent and its charismatic founder, editor and publisher Paul Bass, a white, Yale-educated, Conservative Jew, helps ground the story in a gritty, inner city reality that feels right. The details of how Bass stays in business year after year, his fears that one day he might not ("I'm always worried that I'm not going to be employed in a year," Bass admits. "I'm scared I'm not going to make it to retirement.") and how he interacts and sometimes collides with New Haven's disenfranchised majority of African American and Latino citizens show both the promise and the limits of the "someone else" model.

No book is without its flaws, of course, and The Wired City has its own. In particular, Kennedy is too easy on the lame explanation Bass offers for not having a single person of color on his reporting staff -- Bass says he "simply hired people he knew were good and who sought him out." But Kennedy partially makes up for this lapse by quoting one African-American community leader's smart observation, "It's as if you are writing my story right now. It would be better if I wrote my story." In any event, it should come as no surprise that Bass's white reporter says he is greeted with suspicion in the black community, feels "slightly nervous" when covering it, or that teenagers yell "You're in the wrong neighborhood, boy!" when he does...

Still, when we as a democratic society are at what Kennedy accurately calls, "a historical moment when nonprofit media -- supported by foundations, donations, and, indirectly, taxpayers, since contributions are tax-deductible -- are in many cases more stable than for-profit media," his book offers a valuable window into one possible future. It is, as he says, happily a future of "professional news organizations run by paid journalists," but one that has "built into it DNA" a deeper, better and fundamentally different relationship with audiences. One result, Kennedy concludes, is that "journalism, if not newspapers, is already being saved -- not everywhere, and not perfectly. But in city after city, region by region, dedicated visionaries are moving beyond the traditional model of print newspapers supported by advertising."

"May you live in interesting times," as the old Irish adage -- or curse -- has it, and so we journalists do. The next few decades, says Kennedy, "are likely to be as exciting a time for journalism" as we have seen in centuries. But fear not. "What we are living through now is not the death of journalism," he says, "But, rather, the uncertain and sometimes painful early stages of rebirth." Researching his book, Kennedy concludes, "left me profoundly optimistic about the future of journalism." Reading it will do the same for you.

Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor is the author of "Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio" (AlterNet Books, 2008). O'Connor also writes the Media Is A Plural blog.

 
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