The best ideas focus on two things: Be part of the community (hyperlocal, social interaction, transparency, etc) and offer your advertisers a unique service (ads that work, tasks which small businesses don’t know how to do or can’t afford, etc).
I’m optimistic those things can help keep daily news free to most consumers. However, in-depth reporting is different. Long projects offer little utility for news organizations: They require a lot of resources (man hours for reporting and sometimes dollars to obtain documents and outside expertise) but the return is usually quite small, especially because once the story breaks, every news organization will confirm it and publish it.
The best way to fund watchdog assignments — long-term reporting projects aimed at protecting the public interest — is to solicit donations. While most people don’t care about daily news enough to volunteer their cash, I’m confident there’s a reasonably large population which is willing to donate to programs aimed at keeping government and big business honest.
In fact, we’re already seeing this idea in action. Nationally, ProPublica operates on donations and grants to produce stories “with significant potential for major impact” and The Huffington Post Investigative Fund backs projects which can be reprinted by other news organizations.
Locally, The American Independent funds five state-wide online news outlets (including one in Iowa) which focus on political coverage. And projects like The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism will crowdsource journalistic expertise in the region to produce public interest pieces.
There’s an obvious question here: “If the market doesn’t do a good job of supporting watchdog projects, what evidence is there to suggest that people will donate money to such a cause?”
That’s a good question and many have used it as evidence that we need federal intervention in the media industry. However, we’ve observed that when Americans believe something is vital or in the public interest, they’ll hand over dollars (religion and education attract the most donated dollars in the U.S.).
Still, watchdog projects can’t ignore the priorities outlined in new media business models. Convincing potential donors that journalism is a public good needs to be a priority. As is, we’re in one of the least trusted professions. To garner public trust, we need to to be transparent, accessible, and community-oriented.
Disclosure: The publication for which I currently work, The Daily Iowan, is a nonprofit corporation. Additionally, this summer I’ll be working for The American Independent‘s Iowa outlet. And, finally, I’ve worked with the directors of The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism.