The traditional news media, faced with filling in every single moment with content that will draw in viewers that can be sold to advertisers, has descended into the pattern that we see, of talking heads who are selected because it is already known what they will say and can be counted on to argue with each other without adding much useful knowledge. In this drive fro phony drama and confrontations, resources for real investigative reporting that requires a lot of digging and analysis, get squeezed out as being too expensive. As Seymour Hersh says in his book Reporter, the worst words a reporter can say are “I think”. But that is the most common phrase in these shows as people speculate about things they don’t know or try to predict the future.
It is to fill this vacuum that independent non-profit news groups have emerged. Charles Lewis is a pioneer in this area. I first became aware of his work a long time ago when he became dissatisfied with the way that the TV news show 60 Minutes, where he was a producer, was headed and quit in 1989 to start the Center for Public Integrity in his home. This was one of just three such operations at that time. The CPI became a powerful voice exposing wrongdoing and Lewis later founded another organization the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, both of which are going strong today and have broken major stories by supporting real investigative reporters with the resources that enable them to work and collaborate with others.
In an essay, he writes about the growth of this sector.
According to Sue Cross, [the Institute for Nonprofit News‘s] executive director and CEO, there are approximately 270 U.S. nonprofit news sites today, 165 of which are annual dues-paying members of her organization. Some are small with a handful of staffers. A few are much bigger.
I expect nonprofit daily news sites of that kind to become more common due to the collapse of commercial newspaper and television newsroom staff levels, which have weakened news coverage capacities.
Lewis looks at the funding stream for these nonprofits. They mostly get funding from foundations and member subscriptions (I contribute to some of them) and some wealthy people have also started donating large amounts.
Why are foundations, individual philanthropists and now states pouring more money into the media? The answer is very simple. Without credible news and information, and thus a public that’s at least somewhat informed about the uses and abuses of power, a healthy democracy is not possible.
Cross, a former Associated Press executive, says donations to her organization’s member organizations began to surge at the end of 2016.
“Initially we thought that might be prompted by reaction to (President Donald) Trump’s attacks on the press,” she told me. “We now believe it is a broader and more sustained growth in nonprofit news fueled in good part by community concern over continuing losses of reporting by the traditional press.”
Lewis points to one major gap in news coverage.
In general, national nonprofit media outlets attract more funding than local news operations. This lack of support for local news is coinciding with an increase in the number of “news deserts,” regions without viable commercial or nonprofit news organizations.
This serious problem isn’t a surprise, given the disparities in terms of everything from the quality of trained medical personnel and facilities, to online internet access and per capita income between America’s rural and urban communities.
This is a problem. “All politics is local” may be an overused and overstated cliché but there is no doubt that local issues are the ones that directly affect most people and are important to the political process.
If you want to hear real news, then it is worthwhile subscribing to the newsletters of organizations like The Intercept, ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. You can also check out the member groups of the Institute for Nonprofit News to find lesser known groups that work locally in your area.