Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Great ideas, important journalism: Who pays for it?

The second session of the Park Center for Independent Media's inaugural symposium focused on -- what else? -- revenue streams.

Independent is, by definition....well, independent. That means independent journalists need to devote considerable effort and attention to how they're going to sustain their work. The people sitting around this table have a lot of experience and insight into those questions:

The intro speaker is Safir Ahmed, book publisher and journalist who is filling in for Jennifer Nix, former NPR producer who was responsible for promoting New York Times bestseller How Would a Patriot Act? Nix's viral marketing campaign drove the book across multimedia platforms to push the book out of obscurity into major media and onto the bestseller list.

Blogger Chris Bowers has been earning a living as a blogger since 2004, and he's talking about the mix of revenue streams he puts together to make it possible. He says he doesn't feel any pressure to tailor his message to fit the needs of his advertisers -- the ads just cycle through the site; ironically, he says, he has experienced more pressure from nonprofit groups for which he's consulted than he does from the "commercial" media.

"Working with the nonprofit world comes with far more strings attached than working with any other form of funder," he says. "The fallacy of clear boundaries between political news and political activism are laid bare in the blogosphere. I find it ironic that we talk about "corporate media" but it's our status as a corporate entity -- limited liability corporate entity -- that actually allows us to be free to write what we want to write.

Steve Rathe, owner of Murray Street Productions, raises the question of whether a blogger who pushes a particular publication or product -- being an Amazon affiliate, for example -- and gets a hit from the sale is taking "payola": when does that revenue turn into a significant motivation for promoting the work?

Gail Robinson at Gotham Gazette, says she's experiencing "foundation fatigue": New ideas and projects get funding, but it's incredibly difficult to get operating revenues -- and that means you need to add projects that can distract you and spread your energies too broadly.

Jeff says that's the $64,000 -- OK, $64 million -- question. "Nothing worse than the third or fourth year when you lose the funders who 'got you' at the beginning."

David Cohn says there's a problem we are trying to solve we can't. "There's no such thing as clean money" - so the best thing you can do is be transparent about what you do and where you get the money. Look at Pro Publica: you know where the money is coming from and you can decide about that....There's a lot of space to grow that out, you get a lot of people together, you're being commissioned by the public."

"....The public says I thought content was free....but no, it's not. Cohn says that when he approaches traditional journalists about this, they have a lot of questions; independent journalists get it right away."

As traditional journalism organizations crumble, we have to find new ways to sustain journalism. And journalists will survive the death of those institutions by learning how to fend for themselves. "The way to do that is to build your own posse. A good example: Chris Alberton who funded his work in Iraq. The cultural shift is that that has to become commonplace. Right now there's just flashes in the dark; we have to learn to turn on the light."

The group talks about various ways to fund independent journalism projects: crowdfunding (like spot.us); audience funding (like NPR); aggregation (Federated Media); foundation funding (Knight, News Challenge grants); advertising.

Steve Rathe (NPR, Murray Street Productions) says the more time people spend with you, the more likely they are to support you; you need to ask them three times before they'll support you.

A common point: small can suffice. You can reach 5,000 people with a project, build coalitions, reach a critical mass of supporters who are willing to contribute. Aggregation of those audiences -- the kind of aggregation being done by Federated Media -- is a powerful way to build revenue streams.

And another important point: it's not about finding a new funding model - though e-commerce is going to be a part of everybody's model. But the key question is still the storytelling: are people listening?

"How are we going to talk to people about these momentous events in a way that they can hear them and understand them in the context of their own lives? That's the biggest problem: the story challenge. If you do that, traffic will go through the roof -- and you can always monetize traffic."

David Cohn: There's no such thing as a silver bullet. I'm a big advocate of community funded reporting, I don't assume that will be able to fund all the journalism we'll ever need. ... I'm building a platform, not a news organization.
So you can't rely solely on donations, you can't rely solely on advertising. ....we have to be transparent and open and honest with ourselves about what methods we're using; it's uncharted territory....even if I tell a great story about the mission district in San Francisco, that's not going to get enough traffic because the district is too small. In that case, you have to solicit, you have to go them for funding. ... we have to be clever about how to use all sources."

Deanna Zandt: From a technical perspective, we have to talk about page views. We're in an economic crisis, one of the things I do with my clients and the organizational strategy I do is talk about how we're not building web sites anymore. We're not building homes for people to come and visit, we're building services, and those services need to interlock in interesting ways....

Steve Rathe says independent journalists aren't corporations but have many of the same needs in terms of scale and outreach that those organizations have: "So how do we adopt the sharing functions of corporations without turning into them?" How can we network and aggregate our efforts to have an impact? What about direct mail? Expensive, but it works. "There are far more people supportive of all of the missions of the people in this room than there are of any one of us." And how do we figure out a way to combine those functions so we're not all spending all of our time doing it individually?

David Cohn says independent media provides services rather than products: it's about the network of small voices rather than a single destination site.

Jeff Cohen wraps up the conversation by turning the floor over to Denis Moynihan, who was present at the Republican National Convention, where independent journalists from Democracy Now! were arrested while covering demonstrations at the convention. They were among a group of journalists and citizens charged with potential rioting, a felony.


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