The acceleration of newsroom layoffs and buyouts over the past few years undeniably means that newspapers are producing less local reporting than before. But it also means a sizeable number of pre-retirement age professional journalists are out there not doing journalism—either unemployed, under-employed or working in a different field now.
As news organizations get a feel for where the floor is with newsroom cuts, realize in some cases they’ve gone a step too far with staff size, and experiment with revenue models that might help them rebuild, that exiled community of journalism talent holds great potential.
Granted, many news organizations have smaller freelance budgets now, not just smaller newsroom staffs. But what if publishers made a formal effort to cultivate and support a network of freelance journalists in their communities, and found some solutions to their own revenue problems in the process of exploring ways to fund their work?
Here are three possibilities:
Crowdfunding: Going directly to readers for special funding of journalism projects through crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter is becoming more common, but until now has mostly been the domain of nonprofit online news organizations.
Local newspapers, despite a for-profit business model, need to get better at explaining the altruistic nature of their public service journalism. And be transparent about the resources they are devoting to day-to-day local news coverage and the limits of those resources.
It wouldn’t make sense to launch a crowdfunding campaign to cover local school board meetings or an election, but asking readers for $1,500 for a special enterprise or investigative project that is ambitious and out of the norm would. That money could go directly to freelance journalists for investigative work, or it could fund freelance coverage of day-to-day stories so that staff reporters are freed up to do the enterprise project.
Crowdfunding has the added and mostly unsung benefit of engaging one’s audience in the work of local journalism. If a reader contributes even $15 or $20 toward a special investigative project and sees the quality and impact of that work, you’ve made them a loyal partner in what you are doing.
Crowdfunding can also engage new communities of readers who might be passionate about the special topic you are tackling, but not previously a day-to-day reader of your work.
Sponsored Content: Publishers everywhere are making a push into sponsored content, branded content, native advertising—whatever you want to call it. Newsrooms can see this as a sign of the apocalypse, a dangerous blurring of the lines between real journalism and advertising, with lots of potential for deceiving readers through inadequate labeling. Others see both revenue and news opportunity.
Jaci Smith, now digital planning editor at Gannett’s News Journal Media Group in Delaware, studied the idea of sponsored content at small newsrooms in a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship last year while she was managing editor of a small daily newspaper in Minnesota, the Faribault Daily News.
She saw opportunity in the stack of story pitches and ideas that her tiny newsroom couldn’t get to. Instead of hitting the trash can, the state wildlife department’s press release about the opening of fishing season could be turned into a story sponsored by an outdoors supply store such as Cabela’s. Stories that wouldn’t get done because of dwindling newsroom resources could theoretically be pursued more creatively and rigorously than ever because suddenly there was a specific budget for that one story.
And working with freelancers is a natural way to get a sponsored content operation off the ground in a small newsroom that’s stretched with day-to-day news coverage and worried about the blurring of lines.
Underwriting: Finally, consider the role journalism has and could play in addressing big-picture societal problems. How can we address public health issues without journalism that helps identify their nature and cause, and without dissemination of information to the public? The same goes for environmental issues, education, the arts, economic development.
There are huge sums of money being poured into efforts to address these topics, and why shouldn’t journalism play a role and receive a portion of that funding?
Should a newspaper accept money from the foundation arm of a big health care company or insurance company to fund coverage of health care issues? Or have the Chamber of Commerce underwrite coverage of the plight of small businesses in a community?
With proper agreements in place about journalistic independence, perhaps. Or maybe state press associations or other journalism organizations could act as a “firewall,” taking $100,000, for example, from an education reform organization that wants to fund reporting on the challenges faced by public schools, and distributing it “request for proposals”-style to news organizations that want to participate.
Matt DeRienzo is a newsroom consultant and a former editor and publisher with Digital First Media. He teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University and the University of New Haven in Connecticut, and is interim executive director of LION Publishers, a trade organization that represents local independent online news publishers.