Will new models of paying for journalism thrive, and survive?

One highlight of the recent national conference for state capitol reporters and editors was a panel of “new media” practitioners who described emerging new business models and methodologies for delivering news and analysis to tech-savvy modern audiences.

A Saturday panel at the conference focused on “new business models for statehouse coverage.” The panel consisted of organizations that “are forging new models to pay for the collection of news,” according to sponsors.

Participants included Dennis Welch of The Arizona Guardian (www.arizonguardian.com) and Brian Howey of The Howey Political Report, a weekly analysis of Indiana politics. Also describing experiences in the brave new world of journalism were James Pindell of the New Hampshire Political Report (NHPoliticalReport.com), the panel moderator, and Michael Grass of the Center for Independent Media (www.newjournalist.org), a Washington-based non-profit group founded in February that has carved out a visible impact on news coverage and citizen activism in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and New Mexico. One of the most engaging speakers at a frequently engaging event was the fifth panelist, Trent Seibert of Texas Watchdog (www.texaswatchdog.org), an online non-profit concentrating on state and local government in the Lone Star State.

Whereas the Arizona and Indiana operations are for-profit, the D.C-based operation and the Texas Watchdog are non-profit. The Arizona Guardian relies on high-dollar subscriptions, while both Texas Watchdog and the Center for Independent Media engage in grass roots citizen training, enterprise reporting and analysis.

Like many other new media, the five news groups have become new homes for refugees from the financial stress and strain evident at many newspapers across America.

The four men spoke at the 2009 “Capitolbeat” conference in Indianapolis, Indiana, a two-day seminar that touched on the full range of issues deserving detailed coverage and journalistic competition in an era of declining news resources and non-competitive relationships among key elements of the mainstream news media.

The least pessimistic speaker at the conference was probably Ed Fouhy, a career print and broadcast journalist and one of the first presenters on Friday, although his remarks could scarcely be described as pollyann-ish. Fouhy said there is little doubt that, across America,  “An already small but merry band of state Capitol reporters has gotten smaller and a little less merry.”

Indeed, numbers were part of the focus at the Indianapolis conference. In the late 1990s, there were some 626 state Capitol beat reporters across America, according to the American Journalism Review. By the early 1990s, that number had shrunk to around 500. Today, there are around 350, in the estimate of Capitolbeat. Capitol press rooms across the nation typically include empty desks, with some of the occupied desks filled by reporters using non-traditional news delivery systems.

“The world of journalism has changed more in the last 10 years than it did in the previous fifty,” Fouhy said. Nonetheless, he believes there is still a market for journalism’s goals of, as he described them, accuracy, objectivity and independence: “It’s fashionable to be downbeat, but I’m an optimist.” To justify that optimism, he spoke on the emergence of new web-based enterprises, some combining print and web work, and both for-profit and non-profit models.

He said modern journalists need “someone with deep pockets, advertising, foundation support, big subscribers and little subscribers,” and that the audience for straight reporting is strong: “Voters are starving for information.” The future will belong, he said, to those who invent “local journalism that works” in local markets.

Fouhy, still involved in the work of the Pew Center on Journalism, is the winner of five Drew Pearson awards, among many other professional accolades.

Oklahoma City, just a little over a century old, is still inventing or reinventing itself. The profession of journalism, reacting to a transformation of business models rooted in the global economy, is certainly in search of new models.

Perhaps weekly newspapers like  The City Sentinel, and online models like Tulsa Today, can be part of a Renaissance for American journalism.

About the author: An award-winning journalist, Pat McGuigan is a longtime
contributor to Tulsa Today and serves as our contributing editor. He is also
managing editor of a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 25 August 2009 )