Can grassroots journalism do the job?
Although a number of do-it-yourself ventures have embraced modern technology to attempt to fill the void created by the retrenchment of the mainstream media, there is scant evidence to date that any have succeeded to the point that they will support the sustained efforts of professional journalists.
Professionalism matters among journalists, because it enables them to devote the proper levels of diligence, discipline and time to reporting on public affairs in an objective and disinterested fashion. And professionalism, by definition, means paying the practitioners a sufficiently high level of compensation to attract bright and talented people to the craft.
New projects like Global Post, True/Slant and San Diego News Network give journalists platforms to present their work in exchange for what everyone hopes will be a comfortably compensatory share of the advertising revenues attracted to each site. The projects are in their early days, but it is safe say the participants in even these comparatively well-funded and high-profile ventures are toiling at the moment for far more love than money.
While it is true that the hard work of one or a handful of highly motivated individuals can create something worth reading for as long as their enthusiasm holds out, the time and hard work involved in serious reporting seems to suggest even the most impressive grassroots projects will be condemned to relatively short life spans.
Even where the will to go forward remains powerful, there is no satisfactory answer to the practical question of how long talented, capable and motivated individuals can afford to commit themselves to self-assigned journalistic endeavors that so far are not known to have generated any appreciable income for the writers.
The Gannett Blog is a case in point. A seemingly promising experiment in hyper-local, crowd-sourced citizen journalism, it was launched about 1½ years ago by Jim Hopkins, a former Gannett journalist. Now, Hopkins says he is going to pull the plug.
Hopkins said he will stop producing his blog on Oct. 1 because he is exhausted by the hours required to tend it, because he is disgusted with invective he says was hurled at him and because he couldn’t earn even $15,000 a year for his trouble.
Though the Gannett Blog started strong in the fall of 2007, Hopkins' behavior got a bit peculiar. He said he spent $2,000 to hire a bodyguard to protect him when he attended the Gannett annual meeting on April 28. And a video of the meeting shows him exhibiting something less than professional journalistic demeanor during the Q-and-A portion of the program.
Regardless of what you think about Hopkins or his blog, his experience makes for an intersting case study.
An editor and reporter for 20 years, Hopkins had a number of unique advantages that should have favored any hyper-local, crowd-sourced venture in citizen journalism. Consider:
:: The Gannett Blog’s hyperlocal community consists not of a group of people who coincidentally happen to inhabit a particular geography but rather a homogenous community of more than 40,000 people who work for Gannett Inc., the nation’s largest newspaper publisher. Beyond sharing merely geography, Gannett employees share common professions and the common fact that they all rely on the same company for their livelihoods.
:: Crowdsourcing was a slam dunk. Hopkins fortuitously began writing his blog at almost the precise moment the traditional economics of the media business began unraveling. News, rumors and tips rapidly flowed to Hopkins from employees who hoped he could help them make sense of what proved to be a series of spending cuts, layoffs and mandatory unpaid furloughs. Traffic to his blog peaked during the most traumatic moments.
:: The citizens who provided journalism to the Gannett Blog in many cases were real journalists. Strategically positioned throughout the company, the blog’s contributors had the motivation, acumen and professional skills to ferret out the inside dope they fed to Hopkins. Those tidbits made the blog indispensable reading for a great number of their colleagues.
Hopkins started the blog after taking a fairly generous buyout from Gannett that enabled him financially to turn the blog into something approaching a full-time endeavor. As the proceeds of the buyout dwindled, he began casting about for a way to be paid for his efforts. He considered selling advertising but soon found that he had too-few page views to reap appreciable revenues.
When he tried the tip-jar approach, he was subjected to a fair amount of scoffing and came up thousands of dollars short of the modest $25,000 a year he had targeted. So, despite all the advantages the Gannett Blog had going for it, Hopkins says he will call it quits.
The Gannett Blog is only one of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of grassroots journalism ventures. While it admittedly is not fair to project this outcome on all the rest, you are left wondering:
If a blog for employees of a media company run by a journalist who is leveraging the skills of other journalists can’t make it, then what can?