The Future of Community Journalism

15 09 2010

After I finished my formal education, I spent 10 years in state and local government.  After leaving government, I went to work in the private sector.  At that point, friends often asked if I missed being in government.  One of my half-facetious replies was “It’s nice not to wake up every day and dread reading the morning newspapers.”

Indeed, when I worked for the Governor of Colorado and the Mayor of Denver, there were often days when I awoke to read a newspaper headline about some bureaucratic scandal or impropriety.  At the time, there were more than 50,000 state employees and more than 20,000 city employees.  It was almost inevitable that, sooner or later, some employee would be caught loitering on the job, using government resources for personal purposes, or even embezzling money.

In those days, Denver was in the midst of a newspaper war between two equally-strong dailies: the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post.  As a result, entrepreneurial reporters had a huge incentive to get a scoop and to publish an exclusive story before the competition knew about it.  This led to occasional journalistic errors, where a story would be printed in haste – before the facts were verified or before both sides could be presented fairly.  But this environment also led to aggressive investigative reporting that was insightful, educational, and revealing.

Times have changed.  Last year, the Rocky Mountain News ceased operations after 150 years.  The Denver Post, the “winner” of the Denver newspaper war, is struggling to remain afloat financially.  Faced with competition from the internet and countless other news sources that did not exist just a few years ago, the Post has had to cut staff and other costs.  The paper today is much smaller than it used to be, with fewer reporters covering state and local news.

At one level, the end of the newspaper war is a relief.  The number of sensational, inflammatory, attention-getting headlines and stories has declined.  But, at a deeper level, the end of the newspaper war and the loss of the Rocky Mountain News have been tragic for our community.

A study by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation found that there is an inverse relation between the number of investigative reporters in the community and the amount of local government corruption.  In other words, investigative reporters uncover corruption and that leads to less corruption.  I suppose that if people in local government know they are more likely to get caught and be publicly exposed if they do something bad, they’re less likely to do something bad.

Printed newspapers are dinosaurs; they are becoming extinct.  Many members of my generation will never lose the desire to read a hard copy morning paper, to have ink-stained fingertips accompanying breakfast.  But such a desire is almost nonexistent among younger generations.  Before long, newspapers will be a relic of the past.

What will replace traditional newspapers?  Some people argue that the internet has already replaced newspapers, that wiki sites and open-source information collecting are a better and more customized way to get news than newspapers ever were or could be.  Other people argue that we are losing a crucial piece of our civic infrastructure.  This second group urges some combination of private, public, and nonprofit sources to finance local journalism in new and creative ways.  An example is ProPublica, the nonprofit, independent news source that won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting this year, or I-News, the investigative news network founded here in Denver by a former Rocky Mountain News reporter. 

What do you think?  Should The Denver Foundation get involved in supporting local journalism?  If so, how?

 — David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation

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4 responses

21 09 2010
Angelle Fouther

David, the world of news reporting is definitely shifting. I think this shift is good in some ways, and in some ways not so good. News is everywhere – on flat screens in the back of cabs, on ticker tapes, Blackberries and iPhones, on the screen in the elevator as we come to work, on Twitter feeds, and Facebook posts. Citizen journalism has also done a great service in terms of holding the proverbial feet of powerbrokers to the fire. There are indeed blogs and customizable RSS posts of current events making immediate discoveries a norm. Many offer links to full blown articles, but in most cases our society has become reliant on news that comes in bytes – matching the disintegrating attention span of an over-bombarded public. While bytes of information help to keep one informed, I agree, there is no substitute to holding an ink-stained paper in your hands and delving into the labyrinth of details that most complex stories require in order to relay a balanced view.

Further, while print journalism struggles to stay afloat in this byte-driven society, the interrelationship between advertising and editorial content becomes more of tango. Advertising is a necessary bread and butter for papers − but the line must remain.

El Diario de Juarez, the leading newspaper in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (a border city where eight to 12 homicides a day take place now), recently published an editorial after another of their photographers was murdered last week. El Diario’s Sunday edition could be perceived as the waving of a white flag − calling out to the cartel leaders in the headline: “What do you want from us?”

Telling stories will not go away, but perhaps the steward of these vehicles must change, lest the entire industry be surrendered to an imbalanced power structure. I say that to say this: I think the nonprofit world, supported by caring philanthropists, is a great future home for journalism!

22 09 2010
David Miller

Thanks for your thoughts, Angelle. I agree with you that at least some civic journalism will have to be supported by the nonprofit sector and philanthropy.

1 10 2010
Barbara Berv

In this weeks’ New Yorker, there was an advertisement that made me think again about the demise of print journalism, whether done through the nonprofit sector or not. Basically, it said, “When we first got instant coffee, did real coffee go away?”

A lot of us will still have our real coffee while reading the paper for many years to come. In the future it might be financed in a different way, or presented in a format other than paper, but we must find a way to preserve good information. Whether there are enough philanthropists to support it remains to be seen.

14 02 2011
Tanya Ishikawa

I really think the younger generation in particular needs to be educated about the purpose of newspapers- beyond getting entertainment or what they consider important news. The investigative and non-commercial side of news needs to be preserved somehow. It isn’t happening very well through advertising funding or general public support. So, yes, if nonprofits can help news sources that help protect the community through monitoring government (and business) and help bring community together through reporting on all facets of community, please do. (sorry it took so long to comment but I have been saving this as it is such an important conversation)

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