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Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

Community News Start-Ups 2010: Where do we go from here?

Published:  September 23, 2010
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The growing importance of the online news space will be the focus of tomorrow's Block by Block Community News Summit in Chicago, organized by the University of Missouri's Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. See above screenshot of the event's website.

It’s a good thing for community news start-ups that the web is not dead.

Indeed, for the more than 100 online community news founders, innovators and researchers expected at the RJI Reynolds Block by Block Community News Summit in Chicago on Friday, the web is the future.
For those of us watching the online news start-up space closely over the past few years—seeing traditional news outlets shrink, close or adjust, and the rise of independent community news—we should head into this conference with optimism. In a relatively short time (following the mass news job losses and advertising revenue declines from 2007-09) the American news industry is showing promise in the digital age.

A short survey of industry themes reveals journalists, news consumers, academia, investors and the public sector are committed to sustaining emerging forms of journalism:  

Innovation: Social media, the link economy, multimedia, bloggers, collaboration, sharing, reader participation, citizen journalism, user-generated content—these are becoming regular features of online community news sites.  

Funding: “Yes, but does it make any money?” This question is on everyone’s mind, there is no definitive answer today, and there may not be one for a while. More time and research is required for a clearer news economics picture, but some sites are finding revenue in advertising, subscription, donation and event hosting business models.

Foundations have been crucial to journalism research and news incubator projects. It remains to be seen how long private grant makers will invest in the news business, but the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation continues to be a major journalism funder every year. In three years from 2005-2007 the foundation contributed $100 million to media innovation initiatives. The CPB and NPR this year launched Project Argo, a community news plan with member stations.

On the corporate side, AOL in August launched its 100th community news site in the Patch.com network and announced plans to be in 20 states by the end of this year.   

Research and Academia:  The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy convened a core group of journalism and social science thinkers to ask one fundamental question: Are citizens getting the information they need to participate in a healthy society? Their report issued last year, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age,” has led to information needs assessments in communities across the country. (Disclosure: I conducted one such case study for the New America Foundation, on the information health of Scranton, Pa.) Major journalism university programs are overhauling curriculum, launching entrepreneurial degrees, and creating hyperlocal news sites.

Policy: The Federal Trade Commission in December and March held public meetings asking “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” The agency gathered comments from industry leaders and stakeholders to consider what policy, if any, should be considered to sustain journalism.

Broadband: The FCC unveiled the National Broadband Plan in March, an infrastructure initiative funded by Recovery Act, to bring high-speed, affordable Internet access to most US households. So far, 24 states have won funding for broadband projects.

Audience: Americans are spending more time with the news and getting it from multiple platforms.

There is much to look forward to and work with in the years to come, but several issues will need to be addressed toward a reliable, competitive news industry. The FCC and Congress are locked in a policy battle with the telecom industry over Net Neutrality, a priority issue among progressive media reformers.

Ethnic minorities are still underrepresented in the media, newsrooms and news business. Too many legacy news outlets have not fundamentally changed their unsustainable infrastructure, or they have responded slowly to digital norms. Access to government records is inconsistent. And a recent study of citizen journalism sites indicated the sites are complementary to, but no substitute for, established news outlets.  

Despite lingering challenges, a new digital infrastructure for news made of social networks, shared values, universal platforms, risk and consumer expectation is developing to support the online community news space.

A version of this is also cross-posted at a blog set up by the conference organizers, as well as the author's personal blog.

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