Investigative journalism is essentially a public good, argues Jay Hamilton, a Duke University media professor. Private citizens pay little to nothing to read news online, while gaining all the benefits reaped from the improved government policy or environmental cleanup resulting from the big break.
Great for the public, bad for the news publisher that spent thousands of dollars in reporter salaries (and potentially lawyer fees). Thus the decline of local investigatory journalism.
To this, Hamilton and other scholars have suggested running newspapers as nonprofits (see also here and here). Hamilton, who is the director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, was featured on Duke’s “Online Office Hours” webinar series this past Friday.
During the live Q&A, Hamilton also mentioned the “lowprofit” business model of forming low-profit limited liability corporations, or L3C for short. I was intrigued.
Science journalism is suffering the same, if not worse, extinction trends. The impact of quality science news — connecting citizens to their local natural phenomena, improved purchasing decisions through increased science literacy — are more subtle and more easily dismissed as expendable. One way to keep reporters paid and science coverage alive, then, might be to create a L3C science news service funded by investors kind to the science outreach mission.
But if a L3C model is used for investigatory or specialty journalism such as science news, how can conflict of interest issues be avoided, with regards to funding sources?
I posed this dilemma to Hamilton. My question appears at the 34:33 mark:
I think that nonprofit funding can work if there is transparency and disclosure… people give this money for a reason… they want you to think about the environment, than say, health care, so that’s going to be implicit in the bargain.
[But] economists often say it takes a paradigm to beat a paradigm. Some people would say we need to remain pure and not accept nonprofit funding, not accept subsidized funding from foundations. That may be a world where your metro daily keeps shrinking.
And so you do see now the New York Times and the Washington Post… they’re partnering now with nonprofits. ProPublica is an example where the story appears in the Times or the Post, but the funding came from a nonprofit, but it’s disclosed.
But how do you present that disclosure? A link in each web article that jumps to a spreadsheet of donors and dollar signs, and let the reader judge? Conversely, many people trust NPR and PBS as a news source, but are satisfied by the simple roll call of sponsors and slogans.
So how do we present this information and context honestly and tactfully? It reminds me of a discussion at ScienceOnline2010 promoting fact-checking policy disclosures. What if you could only afford to fact-check 10% of your reporters’ articles? Does that disclosure give your readers more or less confidence in your service?
More food for thought. If you have an hour to spare, listen to the rest of the Q&A for other ideas on reshaping the news industry.