The market has rendered its verdict on serious journalism: it just ain’t profitable enough. This is a serious bodyblow to democratic accountability because there are now fewer independent watchdogs over powerful institutions, which can carry out their work in semi-darkness confident that nosy reporters will not be exposing abuses and scandals to the light of day.
So what is to be done? I just participated in a interesting one-day conference aimed at exploring how librarians and journalists might collaborate to reinvent serious, community-oriented journalism. The Beyond Books conference at M.I.T.’s Media Lab showcased a number of intriguing proposals and experiments, but one that caught my eye is the Banyan Project, which seeks to organize community coops as a new financial and institutional support for community journalism.
Tom Stites of Newburyport, Massachusetts, is the moving force behind the idea. One reason that newspapers are failing, Stites argues, is because they are geared to a dwindling sector of affluent readers and ignore the great middle of Americans whose earnings are between the third and seventh decile. Readers didn’t abandon newspapers; newspapers abandoned them. Stites believes that consumer-based coops could support “high-quality, Web-based journalism that serves less-than-affluent everyday citizens and engages the civic energy of this huge public.”