"Nothing will work, but everything might," Internet pioneer Clay Shirky wrote recently in an essay titled "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable" that explains why digital technology, with its capacity for instantaneous, unlimited copying and sharing, has rendered newspapers' old business model obsolete. Those who want to save newspapers are looking for answers, Shirky says, but will find none.
Advertising revenue has fallen precipitously since the recession began cutting the heart out of the real estate, car and employment market. The economic downturn has been particularly hard on newspapers, which were already suffering as classified ads, a mainstay of their revenue throughout the 1980s and '90s, dropped off with the advent of the Internet. For now, online ad revenue is no more than a trickle. When operating budgets get cut, reporters and editors lose their jobs. At The News & Observer, another 31 newsroom employees recently lost their jobs. (Disclosure: The Indy laid off one full-time reporter last year and a part-time marketing coordinator.) Broadcast outlets are also feeling the pain, including local ABC affiliate WNCN and locally owned WRAL, which produces the best local TV newscast.
With fewer reporters on the ground, how will citizens stay informed enough to preserve our democratic system and our quality of life?
No one is sure when the economy will recover, or how much the media business will recover with it. Yet Shirky is hopeful. "Society doesn't need newspapers. What we need is journalism," he writes. "When we shift our attention from 'save newspapers' to 'save society', the imperative changes from 'preserve the current institutions' to 'do whatever works.' And what works today isn't the same as what used to work."
In that spirit, we present a handful of local media outlets that represent emerging business and reporting models people in journalism are discussing. This is a mere sampling; it's likely your favorite local blog isn't mentioned. We make no predictions about the success of these experiments. The model that ends up supporting the go-to local news source we'll be looking at a year from now may not yet exist.
On his morning bike ride down Morgan Street, Charles Duncan Pardo noticed the line in front of the soup kitchen was getting longer each day. He mentioned his observation to Darcie Dearth, a reporter for Pardo's startup nonprofit local news Web site, the Raleigh Public Record, and she wrote a story about the city's social service agencies seeing record numbers of clients, including many laid-off white-collar workers.
It's the kind of on-the-ground reporting Pardo hopes RPR will do regularly, along with stories on local history, arts and entertainment coverage and enterprise projects. "My mission right now is to be at the meetings, cover the stories, and figure out what isn't being covered."
Pardo says he started the project after his part-time hours were cut back in the newsroom at WUNC radio. With time on his hands and the itch to report news, he started blogging Raleigh City Council meetings. In January, with support from a board of directors that includes two journalism professors at N.C. State University, he launched RaleighPublicRecord.org.
Nonprofit news sites have sprung up around the country. Philanthropically funded startups like Minnpost.com and VoiceofSanDiego.org are setting the standard, breaking stories and staying on top of local issues with small, paid staffs of professional reporters and editors. Grant funding launched these exclusively online news outlets, but their long-term sustainability will likely depend on advertising, corporate sponsorship and other donations.
So far, Raleigh Public Record is a nascent effort. It recently hosted its first fundraiser and collected about $1,000, which Pardo says he will put toward filing for tax-exempt status. The group is collecting funds and applying for grants under the umbrella of the Institute for Southern Studies, a more established nonprofit that publishes Southern Exposure and the Facing South blog on regional issues. Facing South reporter Sue Sturgis (disclosure: a former Indy reporter) is a member of RPR's board of directors.
For now, all of RPR's reporters, including Pardo, are unpaid volunteers. Pardo is paying for site hosting and fees for public records requests. He says he hopes public radio's listener-supported model will work for the site.
"We will probably always have very limited resources. If we can just focus on Raleigh then we have a much better chance of figuring out how to make this thing sustainable," Pardo says. "I think if there were four or five reporters covering this city, we could do a really good job. The big question is, how do we go from where we are now with a core group of board members and a half dozen volunteers to a place where we can pay good reporters to do good work?"
Board member Scott Huler, a freelance reporter and nonfiction author, expects Raleigh's politically engaged community will embrace the effort, but he says paying reporters is essential to making the operation work. "It can't work if it's a hobby," he says. "Do we really want unpaid citizen journalists to be our bulwark for a free society?"
Huler says he hopes RPR can make the nonprofit model work. "It's one of the things that will be part of the solution. No one knows what the answer is," he says. "There's no good reason not to try everything."
Given all the bad news economic news, it may seem crazy to launch a print newspaper in one of the most wired towns in the country. But more than two years after its launch, the free weekly Carrboro Citizen newspaper is not just surviving but expanding.
With approximately 18,000 residents, Carrboro is known for a deep sense of community, political engagement and a thriving arts scene. Yet in its 120-year history, the former mill town has always relied on neighboring Chapel Hill's media outlets for its news coverage.
"We always said, if Carrboro were 15 miles thataway, it would already have a great weekly newspaper," says Citizen publisher Robert "Bubba" Dickson. "It's only because it's joined at the hip to this other place that it doesn't."
When Dickson retired to Carrboro a few years ago, he left behind the daily operations of The News-Journal, a community newspaper in Hoke County near Fort Bragg that his family has owned for more than 100 years. He mentioned the idea of a Carrboro newspaper while speaking to Jock Lauterer's community journalism class at University of the North Carolina, and the idea caught fire, Lauterer recalls. "I looked at my students and looked at Robert and said, 'Hey kids, what do you think about that? Want to start a newspaper?'"
Lauterer asked Kirk Ross, a former Chapel Hill News reporter (disclosure: and a former managing editor at the Indy) to consider what it would take to launch a local news outlet covering Carrboro. Meanwhile, Lauterer's students took an informal survey of residents and discovered that approximately 90 percent of them preferred a print, rather than strictly online, edition.
"I'd been thinking about doing a hyperlocal Web site, a real small operation," Ross says. "They said, 'No, people want a newspaper.' Bubba and I looked at each other and said, 'We know how to do that.'" In fact, they've done both, launching a Web site along with the paper that incorporates a variety of blogs, and RSS feeds from other media outlets.
Community newspapers are faring significantly better than big dailies across the country. Of the more than 7,600 newspapers in the United States, and only about 1,400 are dailies, according to 2008 numbers. Of those, the 30 or so with the highest circulation are in the most financial trouble. Community newspapers, which typically circulate fewer than 10,000 copies, share some common advantages whether they're independent or owned by chains: They have little competition and greater penetration, meaning a higher percentage of residents read them. And they offer local advertisers a targeted audience that's otherwise hard to reach.
In the Citizen's case, there is competition from The News & Observer and its twice-weekly free community newspaper The Chapel Hill News, and from The Chapel Hill Herald. But both of those papers have cut back on newsroom staff.
"Carrboro was a place where the other papers were cutting coverage," Ross says. "That was the hole in the market that we saw. And also knowing all these newspaper businesses from the inside, we knew that they would probably not be able to respond. They wouldn't suddenly hire a new reporter to cover Carrboro to counter the creation of this newspaper. They would just try to spread their own resources thinner, which is what they did."
The Citizen has the equivalent of five full-time paid employees. Unlike its competitors, it does not deliver the paper to people's homes but to drop boxes (like the Indy). With rent cheap and overhead low, many issues break even or net positive revenue, Ross says. The company itself has yet to make a profit. Dickson declined to say exactly how much of his own money he's invested in the business, but says it's "in the six figures."
The Citizen won six North Carolina Press Association awards last year among community newspapers with 3,500-10,000 circulation. Contributing Editor Taylor Sisk's first-place, multi-part series on the Rogers Road waste transfer station totaled roughly 25,000 words, and is an example of the kind of explanatory journalism many newspapers are doing less of.
Like a lot of community papers, including its competitors, the Citizen also relies on contributions from people in the community. There's a weekly column on local plants, stories on local history, photos and illustrations. Ross pays those contributors a small amount when the budget permits, he says.
A few months before the Citizen launched, Lauterer's students had started their own local news outlet, the Carrboro Commons, an online news lab. The Citizen uses the Commons as a wire service, picking up about a story a week under a memorandum of understanding.
Lately the Citizen has branched beyond Carrboro, ramping up coverage in Chapel Hill, and increasing circulation by 20 percent, adding drops there and in Hillsborough and Pittsboro, Ross says. He and Dickson hope to increase again from 6,000 copies to 10,000 by the end of this year. (The paper's circulation is not audited.)
Perhaps other small newspapers will launch across the Triangle in communities that receive scant coverage today. "There are a lot of unemployed journalists out there," Ross says. "I'd like to see more newspapers started up like this."
The ideal of newspaper journalism as objective and independent of vested interests is actually a fairly recent development. Some of the nation's earliest newspapers were partisan mouthpieces for the Whigs and the Federalists. Recently, we've witnessed the rising influence of political blogs such as BlueNC, a must-read for progressive politicos. The long-running NCSPIN television program—a Sunday morning talk show for state politics—is online, as well. But with fewer reporters covering state government, many of us rely on advocacy-driven media for more than analysis.
The press room at the North Carolina General Assembly isn't nearly as crowded as it used to be, says Laura Leslie, Capitol reporter for WUNC radio. "I remember the day when The N&O would have four or five people down there and [The Charlotte Observer] would have two or three." But those newspapers are now owned by the same company, and in order to maximize resources, they've merged their state coverage. "In a sense, that's good," Leslie says, "but there are fewer bodies to go to these committee rooms, and fewer people around to follow bills of interest."
Leslie is president of Capitolbeat, the national association of statehouse reporters, which recently completed a census with the American Journalism Review and found a steep decline in state house press corps nationwide.
These days, if you want to know what's happening on Jones Street, two good sources are NC Policy Watch and Carolina Journal. Both are philanthropically funded by groups that openly seek to influence state policy.
Carolina Journal is a monthly statewide newspaper and weekly radio program. Launched in 1991, it has a history of investigating state government corruption and waste. The Journal went online in 2001, and launched in-house blogs in 2004. Thanks to the Internet, its output and influence have continued to grow.
The Journal speaks for and is funded by the conservative John Locke Foundation, a "free market" think tank that has sought to shape everything from legislation to the curriculum at North Carolina's public universities.
John Hood, executive director of the John Locke Foundation, is a former newspaper reporter. He believes the crisis in journalism is a result of the changing nature of advertising, not a matter of ideology. "I don't buy the traditional conservative spin about liberal newspapers digging their own graves," he says. But he does believe ideologically driven media will benefit from it. "For both good and ill, the Internet has created more distrust of the media because people have access to other sources of information," he says.
Hood predicts emerging online media outlets will seek their funds from foundations, universities and nonprofits. "They at least have an alternative business model for paying the bills," he says.
Politically progressive N.C. Policy Watch has increased its online presence as well, giving new reach to the commentaries of its director, Chris Fitzsimon, and allowing in-house policy analysts to blog directly on their topics of expertise at the Progressive Pulse.
N.C. Policy Watch is a project of the nonprofit N.C. Justice Center. Both receive most of their funding from the A.J. Fletcher Foundation.
Recently, health care policy analyst Adam Linker used the Progressive Pulse blog to break the story that Jack Walker, executive administrator of the North Carolina State Health Plan—who asks to be referred to as "Dr. Walker"—earned his doctorate at an unaccredited diploma mill.
"Whenever you're up against entrenched interests like the insurance companies, your primary tool is going to be information," says Jeff Shaw, communications director for the N.C. Justice Center. He says online readership has grown steadily over the past year, especially since the addition of video clips and other multimedia.
Leslie says the emergence of these ideological sources is a positive development in an imperfect world. Ideally, readers will dig deeper on issues that matter to them. "What we hope is for a balanced voice for the public, but in this day and age, some information is almost always better than none," she says.
Not every community is fortunate to have a highly ranked journalism school in its backyard, but this one is. The Daily Tar Heel of UNC-Chapel Hill is one of the best student newspapers in the country, and with 30 reporters on the city desk, covering local government in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County, it has more reporters on the ground than both The N&O and Chapel Hill Herald combined.
"We've always aspired to be the paper of record for Orange County," says Andrew Dunn, the DTH's new editor in chief, "but this year we definitely take that responsibility a lot more seriously with the cutbacks at other media outlets."
The DTH is an educational nonprofit funded entirely by ad revenue (teaching students how to sell ads is part of its mission). According to the paper's general manager, sales have been holding steady.
Another reasons the DTH has been insulated from cutbacks is that its reporters are unpaid students. A handful of editors are the only paid editorial employees. "We don't have the financial constraints that professional media outlets have," Dunn says. "I don't have the publisher breathing down my neck about payroll."
UNC journalism instructor Lauterer says other local newspapers' use of student-produced journalism has increased in the past year. (The Indy has used two pieces from UNC's Carolina del Norte journalism project about the local Latino community.) "This is good, because it not only means that students get real-time experience and clips, it means the newspapers can keep up their standards with lots of good stories they wouldn't get otherwise. The downside, of course, is that student journalists are essentially parachute journalists." New to the community and there a short time, they don't put down roots the way an experienced beat reporter does.
Besides its capacity to put more boots on the ground, the DTH also has the potential to do things conventional newspapers have not been good at: innovating how news is gathered and published online.
When other papers are cutting public editor and ombudsman positions, Dunn has created the position of community manager, a public editor for the digital age. This person will reach beyond the paper's Web site to find and communicate with readers on Facebook and local blogs like OrangePolitics.org, and will cultivate user-generated content. After all, Dunn says, the campus is full of people taking photos and video with their smartphones. Earlier this year the DTH blog posted such a video, of a spontaneous student rave at the undergraduate library.
The DTH is also beginning the process of building its own Web site, breaking away from the Viacom-owned and operated College Media Network system many other college papers use. This will allow more flexibility for online ad sales and allow the editors, designers and reporters to try new things. With the help of Sara Gregory, managing editor for online, Dunn is convening an innovation team with members of the university's computer science and communications departments and the School of Information and Library Science. (Dunn, too, is learning to code.)
"I think a lot of media organizations get too caught up in, what can we do with the resources we have?" he says. "If we have an idea, I know we can leverage the resources we need to get it done." He says he'll open up the process via blog posts in the hope that the innovation team's experiments can help other outlets—where publishers do breathe down editors' necks about the budget—figure out what works online. "With the nature of our organization, we can fail fast, fail cheap, try something new."