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Mosaic plans entice media

Posted: Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What a difference two years makes. The last time I was here for the Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium, organized by former "60 Minutes" star producer Lowell Bergman, you could smell the fear. It was 2008, media revenues had plunged, newsrooms were slashing payrolls and canning their most seasoned reporters, the industry was in a spinning free fall, its parachute tangled around its legs.

This time, hope and buoyancy were unmistakable. "Flat out inspiring," wrote Chris O'Brien, a San Jose Mercury News business writer who blogged on the gathering for PBS' MediaShift. ProPublica, the foundation-funded investigative startup in New York, had just won a Pulitzer Prize for a stunning expose of post-Katrina deaths. Another nonprofit, California Watch, now claims the largest investigative operation in the state, and says that since opening its doors last fall has fed 16 stories to 55 news outlets.

High-end journalism seemed to be sprouting up all over, under the wing of foundations, universities, legacy newsrooms, and under their own power. David Boardman, industry statesman and editor of the Seattle Times, told the conference there was "perhaps as much or more investigative reporting now than ever."

But will it last? When you consider sustainability, the picture begins to cloud over.

Maybe it was our proximity to Silicon Valley, an hour's drive south, but I couldn't help feeling twinges of the same disquiet that I recall from the Tech Bubble a decade ago: Once again, an exuberant flowering of enterprise and imagination enlisting brilliant talents, some of them pulling down top pay; once again, signs of prosperity .

And once again, utter dependence on generous startup grants, with only the vaguest sense of how the inaugural funding would be replenished or replaced.

Two years ago, I said the news business and the energy industry needed the same thing - resources that were both clean and renewable. Now, with newspaper ad revenue forecast to be $30 billion lower in 2013 than it was in 2007, there was little to suggest the media's search had been successful.

In a panel on footing the bills, Alan D. Mutter, the Silicon Valley investor and ex-journalist who offers tough-minded media analysis on his Newsosaur site, prescribed a revenue regime that would be a "matrix," an emporium of money-making boutiques.

What does that mean? It means that instead of that traditional flow of subscription income and advertising, news media have to get hungry and get busy, developing new money streams from micropayments, online ads of all kinds, premium news spinoffs sold to targeted audiences, branded online offerings, special live events, social media mini-networks - whatever jingles in the till.

Or as venture capitalist John Thornton, chairman of the nonprofit Texas Tribune, put it: "revenue promiscuity" - meaning "get it anywhere you can, often."

That's a big departure for the traditional metro press, but what struck me was that it's a comfortably familiar model in other media sectors. In fact, in the vast industry known as trade publishing - those magazines, newspapers and newsletters that operate in an intimate, almost symbiotic, embrace with the industries they cover - what was being described has long been the core business plan.

Does it work? Sort of. They make money, and the journalistic quality of these publications can be quite high, which is why they are often must-reads among the mainstream reporters who cover the same beats.

But they are also notoriously sensitive to pressures and blandishments from the industries they watch, and not just because they routinely cover the same firms whose advertising pays the bills. It's also because of this mosaic of money-spinning projects that media are now being urged to adopt.

Every conference the trade pubs put on, when their sales reps go trolling for five-figure gold sponsorships; every commemorative edition they confect, with opportunities for four-color woo-woo pullout sections; every luncheon networking panel, whose composition is tied to ad purchases - each of these is another nettlesome area of funder discretion, another place where good will may determine the buy decision and where the abject dependency of supposedly independent news media is suddenly and depressingly undeniable.

The revenue mosaic brings in money, but at what cost? Maybe diversifying the money quest will work if management is keenly vigilant to the whiff of corruption. Good luck. For my part, I think that if we expect tough and brave journalism it's time to stop expecting somebody else to pay for it, and to reach into our own pockets.

• Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.



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