Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Pro Publica, Pasha Malla, and the Future of the Press

The New York Times Monday had a story about a group—bankrolled by two wealthy Californians and run by the former editor of the Wall Street Journal—which will set up a group of investigative journalists to provide stories to newspapers who are finding their reportorial resources reduced these days as owners cut back newsroom staffs.

The Times says Pro Publica, as the initiative is called, will “pitch each project to a newspaper or magazine (and occasionally to other media) where the group hopes the work will make the strongest impression. The plan is to do long-term projects, uncovering misdeeds in government, business and organizations.”

By concidence, shortly before I read this story, I went looking for work by Pasha Malla: I’d been impressed by an essay he’d written in a book, GreenTOpia, I was reviewing for Quill & Quire, the Canadian publishing industry magazine.

I found that he is is a contributing editor of The Morning News, a bright, well-written Internet publication that I learned to my surprise has been around since 2002. It’s a publication I’ll check regularly from now on—but written, I’m very sorry to say, by a bunch of volunteers. “We cannot pay for writing at this time.” it says on its contact information.

This is a terrible state of affairs. Reporting is being out-sourced by newspapers and magazines and some of the best writing around is being done for free.

Yet the need for many voices reporting on the world has never been more acute. We had an example here in the Outremont borough of Montreal recently, when the local weekly Le Point d’Outremont and a couple of pesky bloggers uncovered excessive (and in some cases illegal) expenses by borough officials and the borough mayor. All have resigned, but confidence in the borough council has been damaged. What happened demonstrates the importance of local journalism, the weekly’s editor Tristran Roy wrote in last week’s edition (see page 5.)

I’m sure Roy isn’t making a fortune at his job, and I know that the bloggers are doing it for reasons other than lucrative ones. How are we going to get the news reported and analyzed when big newspapers are cutting reporting staff so deeply that Pro Publica is thought necessary? How long will the attention of the citizen-commentators of the blogsphere keep active when they get nothing but glory?

And what are the Pasha Mallas of this world--young, articulate, engaged--going to do when they hit their 30s and the world comes around the corner to hit them in the face? I fear we will lose important voices.


Martin Langeland said...

Ezra Klein had a nice post about this.
Getting the business model right is crucial. Providing a subscription service for media requires a certain concentration of source gatherers (reporters) widely spread (stringers). The temptation is to "save money" by organizing as a non-profit. This permits what I call guiltmail: the demand for donations to a noble cause by an organization that, well run, could pay the market rate. The traditional wire services paid their owners handsomely and their employees the going rates. Now that the internet provides the conduit to collect the information, what is needed is a mechanism to impose payment for the work.
I love the "free" internet that allows me to read so much informative great writing, and chip in my own blather. But it is no way to raise a family. Wish I had a universal solution.

Mary Soderstrom said...

It's "no way to raise a family" indeed.

I hope the Pasha Mallas of the world find a solution soon.