Why not just pay more journalists? The crisis of journalism as metaphor

In which a vision of the future creates drought and desiccation in the present.

Let’s talk about metaphors. “The future of journalism,” for example.

It packs a punch! It’s powerful and inspiring, suggesting continuity and achievement. The past — gears, ink and union pressmen. The future — mobile media, apps and seamless user experiences.

The metaphor here is primarily technological, and as such industrial, albeit in the clean-room spirit of chip manufacturing rather than a sweaty old pressroom floor. It tells us that there is indeed a future for “journalism,” the same way that there’s a future for media technology.

And as far as futures go, media technology seems like a great one to hitch your wagon to — it’s vastly empowering, and comes with a high-productivity, innovation-driven business model. Things anyone would love to see in a journalism enterprise as well.

So far, however, this particular future does not seem to be one in which journalists actually get paid, which is rather a bad thing.

An industrial crisis

Let’s break that down a bit, starting with the nonprofit side — we’ll save commercial media for a future posting (and make only a passing reference to the nonprofit industrial complex).

According to a Foundation Center report, between 2009 and 2011 donors gave $1.86 billion in grants of $10,000 or more to “media” projects of all sorts in the United States.

The good news here is that media grantmaking in general grew at an inspiring rate of 21 percent over that period — although that alone does not mean “more money for reporters.”

Of that sum, 55 percent — about $1.02 billion — went to developing “media platforms” across the Internet, broadcast, film and video, TV, mobile, etc. Actual journalism production (and training) received about half that — $527 million, accounting for 22 percent of all media grantmaking during the three-year period under scrutiny.

Does this three-year funding gap indicate an affinity for techno-futurist grant making? Or perhaps an aversion by grant makers to actually funding reporting?

These are worthy questions, though a bit existential given the depth of the crisis.

What actually matters — the outcome on the ground and in communities — is that the practice of journalism is in the grips of a deep funding drought that’s showing no signs of breaking.

Drought is not an economic formula to crack — although it is often exacerbated by industrial activity.

Drought is devastation. It is hostile to growth and development. It turns people out of their homes, degrades populations, creates opportunity for fraud and abuse, and even produces wars.

And that’s not a very happy future of journalism at all.

While there have been some glimmers of hope — a hardy spring crop of news nonprofits battling to take root, some interesting new commercial business ventures — the news industry is not in any real way positioned to rebuild lost capacity.

And if it does rebuild that capacity — perhaps by via robust, diversified monetization strategies — would a thousand labor beats then bloom coast to coast?

Would environmental-health stories and money-and-politics investigations begin appearing above the fold, on the front page, throughout the week?

Would third-party candidates be routinely featured in debates and reporting?

The crisis of journalism is more complicated than the collapse of the ad model, or the need for new monetization strategies. It strikes more fundamentally at the issue of where the money comes from, and what journalism is for.

At least with regards to the Fourth Estate — that idealized embodiment of civic empowerment in a democracy — the point is simply to pay journalists to cover issues in the public interest, right?

And the problem, apparently, is that no one seems to want to do that.

The depths of the drought

Commercial news organizations are paying fewer and fewer journalists each year. Newspaper employment numbers dropped from 57,000 in 2007 to 38,000 in 2013. In 2011 job cuts surged 30 percent.

This ferocious, national-scale teardown of an entire industry also reveals the relative value of public-interest journalism in the commercial marketplace: Not much.

Foundations don’t pay journalists. Sure, there are a handful of specialized grant makers, plus the odd reporting fellowship. But, as noted above, even within the field of journalism grant making, “media platforms” get the lion’s share of largesse.

Apparently, individuals also don’t want to pay journalists. At the very least, there are plenty of obstacles to doing so. Given issues of trust, brand, visibility, and competition for donations and subscriptions, it seems as if there never will be enough donors or subscribers to sustain a thriving journalism sector.

Then again, there never were. Industrial journalism’s primary subsidy was always advertising, and the breaking of that monopoly with the emergence of networked digital media was when the drought began in earnest.

Even top-shelf news nonprofits get only a fraction of their funding from individual donations, subscriptions and memberships — a most vexing reality given the quality of the journalism they produce, and the depth of civic need.

But the numbers do not lie.

In 2013, for example, ProPublica’s $11.9 million income budget came almost entirely from major gifts and boardmember-related contributions. Online donations, presumably from individual small donors, amounted to $215,000 — 1.8 percent of its total income.

Among regional nonprofit heavies, 16 percent of the Texas Tribune’s $4 million income budget in 2012 came from its membership program, to the tune of $643,935. That same year the Voice of San Diego, known for its potent membership program, boasted 26 percent of its income from membership dues — that’s $366,877 out of an overall income budget of $1.4 million. It’s the healthiest level of individual support we’ve seen so far, but it’s still just one-quarter of VOSD’s overall budget.

It’s not like these organizations aren’t doing good, relevant work that needs to be in circulation. They’re doing all that and more — winning awards, building donor bases, cultivating ancillary income streams, maybe even tweaking the business model.

These are the cream of the crop, the roll-up-your-sleeves “journopreneurs” blazing a trail for the industry into the electronic frontier of the 21st century. So where’s the popular upwelling of support?

This disconnection — or at least under-representation — of individuals from the journalism funding formula is all the more boggling when you consider that they are the drivers of the charitable economy in the United States.

A wellspring gone dry?

Individual Americans gave more than $228.44 billion annually to charity in 2012, out of a total of $316.23 billion donated that year. According to Giving USA, the majority of that went to religious organizations — 32 percent — as well as education and human services (13 percent each).

Yet journalism or media don’t even come up as categories in the survey. The closest you get is “arts, culture, and humanities,” which claimed five percent of the overall annual haul — an estimated $14.44 billion. That’s a 7.8 percent increase from 2011, and many times more in one year than the discouraging trickle the Foundation Center survey identified as going to media (and a bit of journalism) from 2009-2011.

How did the Fourth Estate, redoubtable fortress of the public interest, end up outside the fundraising sweet spot? With a public so given to good causes, and a demonstrated interest in supporting expression, inquiry and discourse?

One theory, proposed by Tom Stites of the Banyan Project (full disclosure: I am a Banyan adviser), is that the public, and lower-income audiences and readers in particular, have been “discarded” by a commercial-news business model that doesn’t value their civic, economic and cultural condition.

The result, he says, is that news media produce coverage of greater value to more affluent audiences, which have greater appeal to high-paying advertisers. For everyone else, journalism presumably loses value and relevance.

With the devaluing of audiences — and certain types of audiences in particular — comes a most curious phenomenon Stites describes as a “news desert”:

“Elites and the affluent are awash in information designed to serve them, but everyday people, who often grapple with significantly different concerns, are hungry for credible information they need to make their best life and citizenship decisions. Sadly, in many communities there’s just no oasis, no sustenance to be found — communities where the ‘new news ecosystem’ is not a cliché but a desert.”

Metaphors are conceptual frameworks that help interpret facts, express ideas and convey opinions. Take a step further back and look at the metaphor itself as an artifact, as something to study (its epistemology, I suppose) and one can break down how that metaphor functions in society, and the values it represents.

The crisis of journalism is a crisis of metaphor. A technological, industrial business model’s unsustainable economics are desiccating news ecologies and information ecosystems nationwide.

Journalism is not an industry. Not any more. There’s a media industry. An entertainment industry. A publishing industry. There’s even, as mentioned previously, a “nonprofit-industrial complex.”

Journalism definitely happens between all these players — and not just ambulance-chasing, Hollywood-obsessed puff pieces, mind you. We’re talking serious, amazing, I’m-eating-my-vegetables-because-they’re-so-damn-good journalism.

But journalism as an industry — once the jewel-studded waistcoat to American industrial democracy — is now most notable for its rust belt. The Fourth Estate itself has entire wings gone derelict.

Maybe we need a new metaphor — it is, after all, the future. We have better tools and deeper experiences with which to survey the landscape.

This new conceptual terrain is ripe for sustainable, adaptive systems design. It yearns for new irrigation methods that can sustain healthy information ecosystems and thriving news ecologies.

In this new landscape, the people formerly known as the audience have a newfound recognition of their empowerment in civic life — but risk marginalization by only engaging through the metaphor of the marketplace.

In this new landscape, journalists, editors and publishers alike have been rather disoriented by the seeming evaporation of their watershed. The well-digging is getting a bit more industrious of late — but tapping into diminishing aquifers is hardly the path to building a more environmentally appropriate, sustainable, and widespread Fourth Estate in American democracy.

Watershed restoration

Here’s a metaphor to try on.

Journalism is a scraggly old cactus in the dry and ravaged desert that blooms gloriously — magnificently, transformatively — whenever the rain conspires with the sun.

The good news is, watersheds can be restored, and cultivated. The garden can diversify and proliferate. It’s a matter of systems design. Appropriate technologies. Complementary relationships. Journalists could learn a lot from the permaculture movement.

It’s possible, you know. To have the journalism sector we all know we really need. There are a lot of infrastructural knots to untangle, but it can be done.

Journalists simply need to better understand their funding watersheds, and more effectively and sustainably build their endeavor in relation to this ecological opportunity.

The public — being that watershed in the profoundest and most pure sense — also has an opportunity, and indeed a mandate and an urgent need. The public is the enshrined wellspring of democratic legitimacy, and it is also deeply vulnerable to abuses of democratic process.

Only engaged individuals and communities can truly “save” journalism — as donors, as subscribers, and most of all as advocates for their own information needs.

But they need better mechanisms to do this, and a new vision for journalism’s value in their lives, their communities, and their democracy.

The health and sustainability of the journalism sector is thus linked to its relevance and connection to the communities it proposes to serve, and who most urgently need it.

This is the opportunity and necessity that a watershed approach to journalism represents. It’s not merely deeper than a futurist metaphor — it’s the context within which a sustainable, healthy future will take root and flourish.

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