National Edition

New report details new ways of creating and funding hard news

Published: Friday, March 28 2014 9:50 a.m. MDT

A digital screen in the lobby of the Washington Post building, as seen through a lobby window, shows the newspapers website, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, in Washington. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million — just one example of how philanthropists with deep pockets are trying to figure out how to fund serious — and innovative — journalism on a landscape in financial chaos.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

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Journalists and consumers alike are struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing world of news reporting, says a study just released by the Pew Foundation’s Journalism Project. But 2013 also saw surprising and encouraging innovation, the report found.

The news business has been under financial siege since the Internet sparked the collapse of traditional advertising models. But amidst all the chaos, interesting new patterns are emerging that suggest consumers will continue to find news that matters to them, says Amy Mitchell, the Pew report’s lead author.

Mitchell notes the critical role that social media now play in how people absorb and even help create news. Half of Facebook users now get news from Facebook, most of them getting it from friends without looking for it, Mitchell said. Not surprisingly, this is most true of the younger 18-29 bracket, she said. Only a third of those users who get news on Facebook follow journalists or news organizations.

News by the masses

The socializing of news consumption is paralleled by the social creation of news content. Pew found that 12 percent of online news consumers have posted news videos taken themselves and 11 percent have submitted content to news organizations. “This changes the dynamic of how news is created,” Mitchell said. “It’s now a much closer connection.” This self-reporting of news comes heavily into play with dramatic events like the Boston Marathon bombing.

On the supply side, Portland’s Oregonian recently made a bold move to generate more revenue, notes Mike Ananny at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. The paper is now paying reporters based in part on how many clicks their stories generate and how long readers stay on the page.

In the past, Ananny said, different sections of the newspaper always subsidized hard news. Usually it was the auto section and classified ads. “Now we have much more data on the individual story level,” Ananny said, allowing a cash-strapped paper to motivate its reporters with clicks.

The danger, Ananny notes, is that this could radically change the nature of the news, skewing it toward “click bate.” Ironically, the Oregonian move was presaged by a satirical Portlandia comedy segment in which a local newspaper is taken over by an online link site.

“We’ve parodied this kind of thing for a long time,” Ananny says, “but it’s not surprising when a paper is strapped for revenue.”

The future of news

So where will the hard journalism of tomorrow come from? 2013 saw some dramatic changes on the landscape, Pew’s Mitchell notes, with big personal brands and deep pockets making some bold moves.

Sports and elections data guru Nate Silver left the New York Times, taking his FiveThirtyEight blog to ESPN and expanding its reach. Policy wonk blogger Ezra Klein left the Washington Post to create Vox.com, which aims to “explain” news in simple and fun ways. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million. And Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar has put up $250 million to found First Look Media, a new journalism conglomerate.

The nonprofit First Look’s first move out of the box was to hire Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the Edward Snowden NSA story, to operate a website called “The Intercept,” devoted to “fearless adversarial journalism.”

Aside from wealthy benefactors spotting seed money, it’s not really clear yet what the business model is for these enterprises, said William Grueskinn at the Columbia School of Journalism. “We’re kind of in the ‘Let one thousand flowers bloom' phase right now,” Grueskinn said.

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