Community-Supported Journalism: Is It Sustainable?

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday January 28, 2009 - 07:20:00 PM

On Monday morning this week we groaned to discover that one of our local National Public Radio stations has launched another pledge drive. This is in addition to listing what seems like 17 different commercial sponsors for every quarter-hour segment all day long. We knew that it was just a matter of time before the other NPR station followed suit, and that KPFA wouldn’t be far behind with another pledge drive of their own. We’ve also gotten letters complaining that some stations which shall be nameless have been selling individual recorded talks by newsmakers instead of playing them for free on the air for everyone to hear.  

Not only that, the formerly major metropolitan dailies, which are now seldom worth reading anyhow, are getting thinner and thinner. Also, Katha Pollitt quips in this week’s Nation that “as ads dry up, magazines are folding, or at least slimming down—pretty soon they’ll be able to slip Time and Newsweek under your door, like a takeout menu.”  

The Nation, because of its independent politics and mouthy columnists, has never had many ads anyhow. Victor Navasky wrote a book about this, A Matter of Opinion, which explained the difference between non-profit, for-profit and supposedly-for-profit-but-money-losing publications and gave his strategies for turning Category 3 into Category 2. They worked for The Nation under his leadership. But his witty and optimistic book was published during what we might now call the Neo-Gay Nineties, and we’re now winding up what could be called the Awful Oughties, so even The Nation is scratching around for funds again.  

Here’s the rub: newsgathering from scratch costs money. Real money. It is fondly imagined that Internet news distribution will replace other forms of journalism, because it’s a relatively cheap way of shooting information around.  

But recently people have started to notice that their favorite snarky sites tend to be what’s called “aggregators”—that is to say they just gather up news that has been reported elsewhere, most often in the few remaining print papers, and repackage it. Old water in new bottles—but what will we do when the well runs dry? 

A wag in The Atlantic predicted that the New York Times would be out of business by May. Don’t bet on it, but don’t bet against it either. The Los Angeles Times is evaporating before our eyes, and big cities like Detroit no longer have newspapers at all. 

Without the NY or the LA Times or the Washington Post and a few more, what would Arianna Huffington do for copy? Yes, she’s now hired two or three reporters, but her bread-and-butter continues to be repeats from other media. 

Paper and printing do consume a certain amount of cash—at the Planet roughly a third of the total cost—but for any news publication, print or online, the real money goes to pay reporters and editors. As Richard Brenneman recently noted in these pages, when he started his career there would be three reporters at a small town’s planning commission meeting—and now he’s in lonely splendor as the sole chronicler of the slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am rezoning of just about all of Berkeley. If he hadn’t been at the last Berkeley Planning Commission meeting, how would we know that a newly appointed commissioner believes that “the market” should decide how many skyscrapers can be jammed into downtown Berkeley?  

Do we even care? Well, we’re currently suffering the consequences of an out-of-control national finance market which was both unregulated and underreported. Maybe, just maybe, if citizens knew what government was up to and where it was falling down on the job they’d do something about it. 

After some weeks of study, we at the Planet, like our peers across the country, have determined that advertising simply isn’t going to pay for the cost of reporting the news any more. It’s not really the fault of the advertisers—a recent report predicted that 25 percent of all retailers would close in the next year. When it’s a choice between shoes on the shelves and ads in the newspaper, a shoe store sometimes has to skip the ads, even though that means that the customers don’t know when the shoes are on sale. It’s a no-win situation.  

Online advertising is no panacea, since even at the New York Times it still brings in just 10 percent of the revenue of print advertising, and more like 5 percent at most papers. That seems better for the advertiser, but it’s hopeless as the means of supporting a news operation. The cover price of print papers returns just a small fraction of what it costs to report, produce and distribute them, which San Francisco Chronicle Editor Ward Bushee estimated on a recent radio program at close to $10 or even $20 for a copy of a typical Sunday paper.  

The Planet’s call for subscribers has gotten 50 or 60 responses at $10 a month, but we’d need at least 3,000 subscribers to pay the bills even for our small paper. The logistics of selling individual copies would be complicated, and the price for the reader would have to be pretty high to make a dent in our costs. For the Planet, news reporting costs at least $25,000 a month when you factor in modest salaries and benefits for reporters and editors.  

As we’ve said before in this space, something around here will have to change. We still hope to put together a group of advisers who might come up with some new ideas, and we’ve already started asking people around town for advice informally over the holiday period. What we’ve gotten so far is a consensus that some form of sustainable journalism—perhaps “Community Supported Journalism,” along the lines of “Community Supported Agriculture”—will have to emerge if citizens are to continue to get any local news at all.  

Looking for a model, we’re taking a leaf from Victor Navasky’s book and setting up a special “Fund for Local Reporting” to which individual readers can contribute whatever amount they can afford. There will be a special category, a la NPR, where commercial and professional sponsors can be listed. This fund will be used only to pay the direct cost of news reporting.  

At the moment, the fund doesn’t have nonprofit legal status, so contributions aren’t tax deductible, but we’re investigating whether it would be possible or desirable to change that, and we’re keeping contributions separate in case we do create a non-profit arm. We’re also asking supporters to volunteer to help with this fundraising effort even if they can’t contribute money.  

Our bet is that readers will appreciate the value of professionally reported news, and will contribute accordingly. We’ll continue to rely on advertising sales to cover printing, including printing reader-contributed opinion content, and distribution.  

In the two or three minutes I listened to the NPR pitch before I turned the radio off, I heard the announcer say “newspapers have advertisers, but we on the radio need to rely on our listeners to support us.” Sadly, that’s no longer true. For newspapers as well as radio stations, in print or on line, it’s becoming increasingly clear that consumers of news will have to shoulder the major part of the cost of the product, or soon there will be no news at all—and no news is not, contrary to the proverb, good news.