Experiments with the news

Faced with declining profits and defections of their once-loyal audiences, Massachusetts-based news media organizations are experimenting with new ways of creating and presenting their content, everything from shifting to Web-only publications to reporting collaborations with nonprofit groups and universities.

The Christian Science Monitor took the most radical step nearly a year ago, abandoning its print edition for a very successful Web-mostly presence. Web traffic nearly doubled over a year ago, with 1,017,000 million unique visitors in December 2009 compared to 572,000 unique visitors the previous December. The Monitor’s weekly print news magazine had 76,000 subscribers last month, 33,000 more than the five-day-a-week newspaper had in April 2009. Another new publication, a digital Daily News Briefing, has attracted 2000 paid email subscribers.

“We’ve just gotten hugely positive feedback from our loyal readers and from the new readers whom we’ve attracted, so we seem to be retaining the people who’ve become familiar with us,” says Monitor editor John Yemma. Currently, the Monitor receives a generous direct subsidy of about $13 million from the Church of Christ, Scientist, exclusive of endowment funds. Under a five-year fiscal plan, the Monitor’s goal is to reduce that subsidy to about $4 million by mid-2013.

Universities are proving to be fruitful laboratories for nonprofit investigative reporting collaborations. This month, University of Massachusetts Amherst students in a new investigative reporting class taught by Steve Fox, a former Washington Post web editor, began looking into deaths and injuries of students in study-abroad programs. The 2008 death of UMass Amherst junior Katherine Sherman in India sparked the project. Initially ruled a suicide by local authorities, conflicting autopsy results in India and in the US raised more questions and led to an FBI investigation. The students are probing the circumstances surrounding her death and looking more broadly at study-abroad programs, an area that’s unregulated by the federal government. Working with MassLive.com, The Springfield Republican’s online presence, they plan to build a database of deaths and injuries and periodically blog about their progress.

Walter Robinson, a former Boston Globe Spotlight Team editor, periodically writes or edits stories for the Globe with students in his investigative reporting course at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. One of their recent projects revealed that US Rep. Stephen Lynch had secured federal stimulus grants for a community health center and a substance abuse center affiliated with his wife. (To learn more about Robinson’s class and investigative reporting projects elsewhere, see the Spring 2008 CW story, “News from a new generation.”

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University is a reporting collaborative involving BU students and local media partners including the Globe, New England Cable News, and public radio broadcaster WBUR. All of the participants release their own individual reports simultaneously. Two of the center’s biggest investigations were stories on the Massachusetts Division of Banks’ lax regulation of mortgage brokers and lenders and on companies that were awarded federal stimulus contracts for highway projects despite past unlawful activities.

“Collaboration has worked really well, but it takes a lot of work to do three versions of the same story,” says Joe Bergantino, the director of the center and a former investigative reporter at WBZ-TV in Boston. “We’re at a point where people want to figure out ways to get more good stories. If it means working together and taking down some silos, so it’s not all competitive, they’re willing to do it.”

The center, which debuted in January 2009, relies on a $250,000 Knight Foundation grant, nearly $400,000 in in-kind donations from BU, cash or in-kind donations from its media partners totaling almost $160,000, as well as individual donations. Bergantino has helped launch an investigative center in Maine and advises journalists who want to create similar projects in Connecticut, Vermont and elsewhere in the country.

Several mainstream media outlets are tapping content from CommonWealth magazine, which is owned by the nonprofit think tank MassINC and backed in part by $800,000 in funding from the Boston and Knight Foundations, which see CommonWealth as a vehicle for expanding news coverage in Massachusetts. The Globe and GateHouse Media both reprint some CommonWealth web and print stories and CommonWealth and Fox 25 News just completed a joint investigation of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

While many local media outlets are eagerly gobbling up content from university and nonprofit sources, some are looking to such collaborations to plug a hole in their coverage or merely expand the reach of their existing stories. WCVB-TV Boston, for example, is providing simulcasts of its morning and evening news programs to Quincy sports and talk radio outlet WWZN-AM/1510 The Zone.

Beyond Massachusetts, similar journalism experiments are being tried, sometimes on a much larger scale. The New York Times Magazine has partnered with ProPublica, the two-year old nonprofit investigative reporting group, on a 13,000-word piece about patient deaths at a New Orleans medical center during Hurricane Katrina. Times staff members fully vetted the article, but the magazine did not pay for the piece. The major costs, such as the reporter’s salary, editing, and legal oversight were offset by a Kaiser Foundation grant and ProPublica.

For some observers, these relationships are a mixed bag. “Despite some reservations I have might have about the idea of for-profit enterprises taking advantage of this incredibly high quality free material and then essentially letting foundations pay for it, the fact is, the nonprofits do have a difficult time of getting their really outstanding journalism out there before the public,” says media critic Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor at Northeastern’s journalism school.  “Collaborating with the for-profit legacy media is a way of doing that.”

Not everyone is convinced that the nonprofit model holds the most promise. GlobalPost.com, the brainchild of NECN founder Philip Balboni and former Globe foreign correspondent Charles Sennott, has decided on a for-profit strategy to fill another niche — international news reporting that only the largest national media outlets can currently afford.

The year-old site, which 4 million people visited in 2009, has a three-pronged revenue stream. The company has more than 70 correspondents around the world that produce original reports for its diverse network of 25 affiliates, such as The Huffington Post, CBS News, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Stars and Stripes, the independent US military news organization.

The site also relies on advertising revenue (which hasn’t been particularly robust for any media company during the recession, according to Balboni) and “Passport” memberships. For a yearly fee, “Passport” holders can talk to the site’s correspondents, suggest story ideas and receive other benefits. Though the memberships have been a “slow go,” Balboni says they “could very well be the most important revenue stream of all,” since the site needs to have content that “develops loyalty and that people want to support.”

Hoping to turn a profit by 2012, Balboni believes that the GlobalPost model suits journalism better than the nonprofit model. The marketplace, he says, “creates the right synergy between costs and revenue,” forcing managers to be more disciplined and ultimately creating a stronger organization. That also enables a company to avoid relying on an “angel” donor, a group of benefactors or a foundation.  “Sure, it’s very exciting to have somebody hand you $20 or $30 million, but what do you do when that’s gone?” Balboni says.

Launched in November, The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan Web start-up that covers Lone Star state politics and government, thinks it has the answer. The site started with a $1 million gift from venture capitalist and co-founder John Thornton.  Although editor-in-chief and CEO Evan Smith expects philanthropy to make up “plus 90 percent” of the site’s operating budget during its first year, down the road he expects to be self-sustaining on a mix of memberships (à la the public broadcasting model) major gifts, foundation grants, event sponsorships and premium content on the site for which people pay. One lesson he’s learned is that funders want to see plans that reflect “on the ground reality,” not “pie in the sky idealism.” He adds: “They want a business model that they can get themselves and their wallets and their donations behind.

Gabrielle Gurley is senior associate editor at CommonWealth magazine.

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