Two Chicago Tribune reporters recently sounded the alarm on a perceived threat to their paper based on the past actions of a hedge fund that now owns a large share of the Trib’s parent company. It’s part of a larger story of newspaper cuts and closures over more than a decade. Brant Houston, the Knight Chair in journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has studied the news business and the viability of alternatives. He spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
We’ve been hearing for years that the business model for newspapers no longer works. How common is the scenario these reporters fear at the Tribune? And could different ownership make a difference?
The scenario of hedge funds and other investor groups buying large shares of news chains to plunder their remaining assets – such as real estate – and to slash staff to find profits is all too familiar. Along with the loss of print ad revenue, these corporate “vultures” have led to the devastation of local and regional newsrooms across the United States. More than half the editorial staffs of newspapers nationwide have been laid off or fired.
One of the best hopes for metropolitan newspapers has been the benign wealthy buyer who cares about quality journalism – as at The Washington Post and Minneapolis Star-Tribune. They don’t seek big profits. They recognize the value of good journalism to communities and society at large. And at the very largest papers, their audience is so vast that subscriptions are producing significant revenue. So this kind of ownership could be an option for success at the Trib.
You’ve been looking for years at alternatives to the advertising-dependent business model for news, and even co-founded the Institute for Nonprofit News 10 years ago. Can nonprofits succeed where newspapers are failing?
The INN has grown from a network of two dozen nonprofit online newsrooms to more than 200 and its membership is still growing. It provides business support and training to newsrooms focused on community and watchdog reporting. As a result, foundations and individual donors have strongly supported these new ventures. Like public broadcasting, INN members are building a significant base of subscribers and sponsors who support journalism that is trustworthy and holds government and business accountable.
As at most nonprofits, it takes tremendous efforts for these newsrooms to build direct audiences, raise money every year and produce quality journalism. But the difference for those journalists is they are not generating revenue for distant, disengaged stockholders, but for the mission of their newsroom and for their audience. That’s why so few nonprofits have failed in the last decade.
Are there for-profit alternatives to the old model that are promising or proven?
When we started the INN, we thought we might be building a nonprofit bridge to the shore of a new model of for-profit journalism. But so far it has turned out that the bridge is the shore. It is possible to have a narrowly focused newsroom on a particular topic that makes money on both subscriptions and data, such as business earnings, but it is now extremely difficult to produce a quality local newspaper supported only by ads and subscriptions. In fact, we are seeing some for-profit newspapers turning into nonprofits and going after donors and foundation grants.
Illinois alone has lost nine dailies and a third of its weeklies over the past 15 years, according to research, and many people now live in a “news desert.” Can anything replace them?
Many of us in journalism are working to develop newsrooms that will provide valuable and quality journalism. Our approach is not to “replace” what has been lost, but to reinvent the coverage. That reinvention – already underway – is through better use of online digital tools and algorithms by nimble reporters who get out into communities, but also are data savvy and can adapt to ever-changing technology.
The coverage of smaller communities has dwindled with the low pay, lost ad revenue and in some cases declining populations. But a new wave of passionate journalists who can mix reporting in person with using digital tools to collect and summarize government meetings and actions will be able to offer far more coverage than communities have seen in recent years.
This overall approach recognizes the reality that most of us now get our news from smartphones and through social media. Thus, more relevant, civil and useful online news feeds will be part of the approach. Streams of news stories that are not fake, cynical or manipulative, but instead are credible, reliable and responsive to citizen concerns and cares, are far more attractive than the trivial and nasty postings that the large social media companies have spawned.
Streams of online, trustworthy stories and data – produced by journalists who care about the truth and the public they serve – can provide the quality community journalism that we have been losing and can ensure that we have a free and democratic society.