One of the most exciting developments in journalism is the widespread appearance of online news startups. These are taking a variety of not-for-profit and commercial forms and are typically designed to provide reporting of under-covered communities and neighborhoods or to cover topics or employ journalistic techniques that have been reduced in traditional media because of their expense.
These initiatives should be lauded and supported. However, we have to be careful that the optimism and idealism surrounding these efforts not be imbued with naïveté and unbridled expectation. All these initiatives face significant challenges that require pragmatism in their organization and sober reflection about their potential to solve the fundamental problems in the news industry today.
We need to recognize that these online initiatives are not without precedent. We can learn a great deal about their potential from other community- and public affairs-oriented media endeavors. Community radio, local public service radio and television, public access television, and not-for-profit news and public affairs magazines have existed for decades and provide some evidence about the potential of the startups. Most rely heavily on the same types of foundation, community support, and membership financial models that startups are employing and this gives them a head start in the competition of those resources.
Despite sharing fundamental objectives and goals, these existing news and public affairs enterprises exhibit wide differences in the services they provide and their effectiveness in offering them. Many suffer from precarious financial conditions.
For the most part, such initiatives are highly dependent upon volunteer labor, individuals with the best of intentions who contribute time and effort. Those who manage the operations must expend a great deal of effort to train, coordinate, motivate and support these volunteers. This incurs cost and takes time from other activities.
Most of the organizations operate with highly limited staffs of regularly employed personnel and this is especially true in news operations. Professional journalists working in these organizations tend to be poorly paid; few have health and retirement benefits; most do not have libel insurance that protects aggressive and investigative reporting; few have access to resources to invest time and money in significant journalistic research. The consequence of these challenges is that there tends to be high turnover because the operations typically rely on young journalists who use the organizations to gain professional experience and then move on to better funded or commercial firms.
The community and public affairs operations also exhibit widely disparate size and quality in their journalistic activities. Even most affiliates of National Public Radio—which is generally considered the most successful of non-commercial news operations—tend to have small and relatively undistinguished news operations. Most rely upon the exceptional content of the national organization, large metropolitan affiliates, and the best of the content collectively produced by other local affiliates. Affiliates with larger news staffs and quality tend to be limited to those linked to university journalism programs or in the best-funded metropolitan operations.
The challenges faced in these organizations should not deter the establishment of new online initiatives or keep the rest of us from supporting them. We need to be realistic about their potential, however. In the foreseeable future these startups will tend to supplement rather than to replace traditional news organizations. They may be part of the solution to the problem of news provision, but they alone are not the remedy.