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A veteran reporter and editor, starting over and aiming to provide high-value local news

SHOWCASE | June 16, 2011

James O’Shea has been chief editor of the L.A. Times and an M.E. at the Chicago Tribune. Now he’s editor of the Chicago News Cooperative, a new venture trying to provide deeper, better local coverage. Will it work? O’Shea’s answer: ‘It’s too soon to say. But we would rather be out there trying to figure out how we can finance quality journalism than waiting for doomsday to arrive.’ (From the Summer 2011 issue of Nieman Reports.)

By James O’Shea

When I was a young reporter for The Des Moines Register, an editor sent me to Fort Dodge, Iowa, to follow up on a tip about a cover-up of a local police scandal. The Fort Dodge police, of course, didn't want a Register reporter snooping around trying to unearth details about trouble in the ranks. In fact, the police had done a good job keeping the scandal under wraps, confining it to rumors swapped over late afternoon long necks at the local saloon.

When hours of attempts to pry loose some details failed, I retreated to a coffee shop to grab a late lunch and considered calling the state desk to report that I would need another day. Then the community spoke to me. "Did you hear about the police scandal?" one man at the lunch counter said to another. His friend replied: "I didn't see anything in The [Fort Dodge] Messenger this morning. I'll look at the Register tomorrow. They'll have it."

I can still hear the confidence in the man's voice about the newspaper where I first worked as a daily journalist, and I can still feel my guilt at even thinking about giving up on a story that my readers clearly wanted. The Register called itself "The Newspaper Iowa Depends Upon," and generations of journalists had delivered on that pledge.

I soon hit the streets of Fort Dodge determined to live up to my newspaper's heritage, and when the next morning's Register landed on doorsteps in Fort Dodge and elsewhere throughout Iowa, the front page had a story with my byline. It was about the Fort Dodge police scandal.

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Serving a different community

Although most of my colleagues and I didn't know it at the time, Des Moines Register reporters of the 1970's had it easy compared to their contemporaries at places like the Chicago News Cooperative (CNC), where I'm now editor. The man at the lunch counter in Fort Dodge was an integral part of a much larger and easily identifiable community that the newspaper served with good, solid, professionally edited journalism. Reporters wrote for the community, and the community of readers responded by continuing to pay for a remarkably concise account of the day's events delivered to their doorstep every morning for less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Almost every little town in Iowa had a town square but The Des Moines Register served as the community's mega town square. Today, of course, all that's changed. Reporters at newspapers, magazines, websites and on airwaves face a far more daunting challenge: The community they exist to serve is more elusive, diverse, fractured and, it seems, reluctant to pay even a small price for the news and information that journalists deliver to their laptops or mobile phones.

There are many reasons for the breakdown of the community once at the fingertips of Register reporters, and the causes of the rupture extend beyond journalism. The suburbanization that converted much of America into soulless communities lacking a center of gravity no doubt played a role. Cable television also fractured the community by dramatically expanding the range of broadcasting choices available to working men and women who once watched the same evening newscasts or read the news in their local newspapers. Fragmentation only increased with the dawn of the Internet when people could sit in front of a computer and create communities organized around narrow—and sometimes—parochial interests. Then there are our industry's self-imposed wounds, including a tendency to edit for advertisers, instead of readers and viewers.

Regardless of the cause of the problems eroding the media, though, the time has come for journalists to use their skills to help re-create community. Embracing such a strategy could be the craft's salvation.

Here at the CNC, which got off the ground in October 2009 with some grants and contributions, we are trying to use journalism to create communities organized around an interest in the news. If, for example, someone in Chicago is interested in education, we intend to provide in-depth information about the city's schools that readers and citizens can't get anywhere else. I'm not talking merely about better coverage of the local school board meeting or slapping an interview with the head of the teachers union online. That's giving the community "information" which is often free—and should be—since it is usually cheap to create and can be found on the school board's or teachers union's website.

By contrast, journalism isn't cheap, and it's not free. What journalists do is report on that information, expose contradictions, apply a skeptical eye to underlying assumptions, and bring to the community information that's not on anybody's website. In other words, they add value to what might already be known by some and give it meaning within the context of the community's priorities and the day's events.

At the same time, the members of this community are doing exactly what they should do: Demanding value if they are going to pay for something.

Creating value

We wrestle with this situation every day at the CNC as we do this work at a time when the traditional business model for journalism is under attack as never before. For decades we've relied almost exclusively on advertising revenue to subsidize the cost of news coverage. But I doubt that advertising will remain a reliable partner or source of revenue to provide the kind of resources needed to cover the news anymore. It might remain a part of the picture, but I'm sure it will be a much smaller part.

That means journalists will have to hit the streets and create something that people in the community will actually pay for because it gives them something of value. So we should quit trying to fool everyone with vacuous, cheap content designed to justify ad stacks and start reporting, which is the backbone of journalism.

In one CNC project now under way, we are creating detailed, reported school profiles. Reporters go into schools and question principals, teachers, students and parents. We are even exploring the use of some yardsticks by which the community can judge the quality of the education that the schools provide. Our goal is to create journalism that will inject enough value into the information to entice readers to join our digital community and get access to our reporting for a nominal membership fee.

By creating numerous communities of interest organized around subjects such as politics, health, technology, science and other areas, our goal is to build a broader community and create a diverse stream of revenue from membership fees, ads and sponsorship that will finance our reporting.

This is not journalism only for those who can afford it. In one pilot project involving local political coverage, we used the membership fees from "Early and Often," the name of our paid site, to support the "Palm Card,' a free public interest political news bulletin for those who couldn't—or wouldn't—pay for the exclusive detailed reporting we delivered behind a paywall. Readers of the "Palm Card" didn't get the rich detail offered in "Early and Often," but they got some news. CNC will also provide free memberships to all public libraries and will encourage those with means to sponsor memberships for those in the community who can't afford our fee of about $100 a year.

The idea animating our effort is to create the kind of civic engagement that enhances the community and serves the public interest.

Will this work? It's too soon to say. But we would rather be out there trying to figure out how we can finance quality journalism than waiting for doomsday to arrive, which is what is going to happen if we all follow the present course. All we risk is failure, a small price to pay for our ambitions.

At CNC, we believe journalism means as much to the community as the community means to journalism. The Internet has made it far easier to spread rumors, lies and propaganda disguised as news at a time when traditional news organizations are cutting back on reporting as they fight for their lives. In some cases, journalistic organizations merely pick up the official line of the company and institutions they cover and report it as news.

As a correspondent, I traveled the world and often saw communities without decent journalism. It is not a pretty picture.

If we don't figure out how to finance public service journalism, I fear the consequences. It is not as if the world of tomorrow will be one without news. We will have quality coverage, perhaps better than ever. But quality news will be for the wealthy—those who can afford to pay $2 a day or about $6 on Sunday for The New York Times or thousands of dollars a year for a subscription to one of Bloomberg's targeted services. For those of lesser means, the news could become the raw, underreported and unanalyzed information they will get from the rapidly growing "news" organizations being set up by the public relations departments at places like city hall.

To serve the community, journalists must provide deeper and better journalism, the kind that creates civic engagement and value. We must also educate the community, not only about the reporting we can deliver but also about the tangible and intangible value of quality public service journalism that holds those who serve the community accountable for their views and actions. The community needs great journalism more than ever. As journalists, we must rise to the challenge. We have an opportunity to improve our craft. We can—and should—do better.


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