From time to time I’ve written about ways that newspapers, particularly local ones, might sustain investigative journalism. It’s my belief that ad-driven models won’t carry the day, particularly not in a digital environment; we need something closer to the “daily dataset” concept advanced by Esther Dyson, among others.
Mid-size newspapers, which depend on local support and lack the resources that might be invested in new approaches, are at greater risk than most periodicals. This reality was documented fully in the 2012 Tow Center report co-authored by Clay Shirky, Emily Bell and C.W. Anderson. Their analysis saw things getting worse for these papers and their communities before they got better.
I tend to think of things like business models more than I should; they are somewhat the coin of the realm in consulting. That orientation sometimes puts a distance between me and people who have come to newspaper, magazine and book publishing with a love of purpose and a fondness for the distributed word.
We need not be at odds about the primacy of purpose; a model works only when it describes a business that provides demonstrable value. The challenge for newspapers may be aligning ambition with their boots on the ground.
I was thinking about this alignment problem as I read “Newspapers will break your heart”, a piece written by Eric Chiu for Medium. Chiu is a second-generation Asian-American who returned to his hometown of Flint to take a five-month paid internship at the Flint Journal, the city’s daily newspaper.
The job was Chiu’s first as a paid reporter, and his piece chronicles his evolution from untrained graduate to hesitant beat reporter. His view of the process is not always nuanced, but it can be engaging:
Rather, it’s not sausage-making so much as it’s finding a piglet, personally raising that piglet into a grown pig, being forced to sell the pig to a butcher, and watching as the butcher slaughters the pig and produces a pile of freshly made sausage links.
While Chiu might have benefited from his former copy desk for his Medium piece, that shouldn’t stop you from reading his story of the human side of reporting at a local level:
There was the soldier not much older than me putting on a brave face for her family before starting her deployment to Afghanistan. There was the father recounting the domestic abuse a homicide victim suffered at the hands of her alleged killer or the people who’d come out events in downtown Flint, simply because they cared enough to not flee into the surrounding suburbs instead.
I still don’t know how we keep this piece of our American legacy. Sending cub reporters to crime scenes, more or less unaccompanied, doesn’t seem like the recipe for success. But we need those newer voices, those fresh perspectives, or we’ll not find the collective resources we require to invent something sustainable.
A newspaper can reflect and shape its community. But as Chiu concludes, “Those events and people and bylines weren’t Friedman-esque metaphors for the Rust Belt or the state of the media industry or something else. They were simply stories.” They are also stories that otherwise might not have been told.