Institution vs. infrastructure: The question of ProPublica and reaching to the local level, too


Outgoing Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger's ProPublica project will put $10M in philanthropy to work on civic/watchdog journalism for the nation. But what about funding journalism at a more granular level? Josh Wilson, founder of NewsDesk.org, examines the question, and proposes a working solution.

ProPublica is the most ringing acknowledgement yet that the crisis of American journalism is not one of print versus online, but rather of commerce versus public service.

It forthrightly proposes to make up for the shortcomings of the commercial newsroom with a bracing regimen of in-depth investigative reportage - vital for any healthy democracy. It also raises the bar for journalism philanthropy, backed as it is by $10 million annually from the banking fortune of Herbert and Marion Sandler.

Yet the question persists: What else can we do for our democracy besides create another journalism institution? Perhaps we should also be thinking about
new journalism infrastructure.

In that light, ProPublica reveals two potential shortcomings:

  • First, it assumes that the only reason significant works of investigative journalism aren't showing up in commercial media is because no one can afford it any more. But it is also true that investigative work is in decline because it doesn't sell as many newspapers or get the same ratings as Britney Spears. And because the owners don't always put public interest first. In other words, ProPublica may have to take a Procrustean turn to make its work fit in the commercial medium.
  • Secondly, it seems to take a "Great Man" approach to journalism. It concentrates talent and resources in Manhattan, and is to be led by former editors at the Wall Street Journal - fleeing, perhaps, the heavy thumb of another Great Man of the media world, Rupert Murdoch. My concern is that the entire purview of ProPublica will be the north and south poles of today's modern world - Wall Street and Washington, D.C. - to the detriment of, well, everywhere else.

Edward Wasserman hit the nail on the head in Oct. 29 Miami Herald essay, when he noted: "The isolated and beleaguered reporters who are breaking their picks hacking away at local zoning scandals, crooked landlords, corrupt courts and local environmental disgraces fall beneath Pro Publica's gaze."

And so we get to the heart of the matter: The journalist is the red-headed stepchild. No one wants to hear from the "isolated and beleaguered" folks doing the actual reporting. The debate roars and crackles overhead, far up in the stratosphere, while they labor in obscurity down in the trenches.

Nowadays, the career options for the average working journalist are limited. They must pick between established commercial outlets - and all that entails - or existing nonprofit operations, which are neither diverse nor widespread beyond the local/regional NPR bureau.

How then will ProPublica -- which concentrates talent in a single operation driven by an elite corps of reporters - solve that conundrum? What, in other words, is being done locally, to activate and empower professionals on the ground?

Let's consider again that $10 million. What else could be done with it? As an intellectual exercise only (of course) I did a little cocktail-napkin math, and came up with 13 local/regional news bureaus, run by a co-op staff of three (two reporter/editors and a multimedia producer), linked up in a resource-sharing and promotional network, and strengthened by a $100,000 annual fellowship program to boost editorial capacity.

In the big picture, however, it will take a lot more to really build out local and regional news-media infrastructure, especially with journalism business models in such extreme transition.

Citizen media advocate Dan Gillmor wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 17 that even the Knight Foundation's 21st Century New Challenge, with its $25 million disbursement, amounts to "a rounding error compared to what it will take nationwide (and, in fact, around the world) to come through this transition with a vibrant and diverse journalistic ecosystem that includes local news."

His solution -- a greater commitment to local journalism funding by community foundations and other local, donor-advised grantmakers - is important, and should be developed further. Whatever the funding source, local news media infrastructure would need the following characteristics to remain viable:

  • Cost-efficient operational model
  • Reliable philanthropic support (including grants as well as individual donors)
  • A tested, standardized, affordable publishing platform (most of the leading blog platforms, such as Movable Type or Word Press, provide this for free)
  • Standardized production, style and best-practices guidelines
  • An advisory board derived from local j-school faculty, and local chapters of the SPJ and/or Newspaper Guild

While I have my own notions about what truly independent journalism infrastructure would look like, my experience is that the funding and vision required for developing this is not extant. The media-reform and philanthropic establishments are still trying to get a grip on the technology, and still think in terms of centrality, authority and hierarchy.

In that regard, ProPublica is a good start. It is important not just for the reporting it will produce, but also because it expands the realm of the possible for new journalism models.

But the Internet -- the future of media -- is by nature diffuse, egalitarian and peer-driven. This should inform consideration of new civic infrastructure for journalism in communities everywhere.

What do you think this would look like? I don't have $10 million to offer, but together we can push this conversation forward.


React to this essay by going to the MGP2006 blog and posting a comment. Wilson has developed a concept for three prototype "NewsDesks" which would operate in so-called underserved areas of the United States.