We made it back to our home in Chicago this past Monday from a week in Ohio visiting my in-laws for Christmas. Our wonderful neighbor’s kids not only took care of my son’s fish Percy (thanks, Concetta and Chance!), they also collected our mail and newspapers while we were gone, since I wasn’t quite with-it enough to put them on hold before I left.
Coming back to all those newspapers at once was shocking. One week of the Chicago Tribune equals about 8 inches of dead trees, something I hadn’t realized until I saw them all, stacked up at once like that. And although those 8 inches includes some interesting stories, great recipes and entertaining Doonesbury strips, it is overwhelmingly stuff I don’t want or need to have in writing.
See, I get most of my news from NPR, or from specialized news outlets like the Chronicle of Philanthropy or Philanthropy News Digest. By the time I read the paper, I’ve heard most of the “hard news” stories somewhere else.
Except that, once a month or so, there’s a story that isn’t anywhere else. It’s a piece of investigative journalism by the reporters at the Chicago Tribune. A sample of the past few years:
- An expose of the “clout list” used by politicians to get well-connected but potentially unqualified students into the state’s premiere university.
- Ongoing investigation and reporting on the administration of Rod Blagojevich that was interwoven with the federal investigation that led to the governor’s indictment at the end of 2008.
- A call for greater oversight of nursing homes after uncovering the deaths of 13 children with disabilities in the care of homes who didn’t, in fact, care for them.
Dozens of Chicago Tribune investigations have resulted in public hearings, new oversight, reforms and even new laws. You can see a watchdog update from August on a bunch of Tribune investigations here.
Truth be told, I don’t read the full text of most of those stories. I read the first few paragraphs. I skim the follow-up articles, check out the graphs. But even if I don’t read them all the way through, I’m so glad they’re being written. I’m glad the Tribune is doing these investigations, and I feel like they’ve got the public interest in mind.
So here’s my conundrum: I want to support the important work of the journalists, the civic watchdogs at the Chicago Tribune, but the 8 inches of dead trees (much of it ads for new and used cars, and I’m not in the market for a car of any kind) is unconscionable for me. I honestly would like to cancel my subscription, except for the fact that those journalists need to get paid, and they need subscriptions to their newspaper to get paid.
A Failed Social Enterprise?
(As a side note, newspapers who rely on subscriptions might be one of the oldest and most important social enterprises around. They provide a critical community service and get paid by the members of the community who value that service. Not the most “cutting edge,” but clearly a social-purpose business whose struggles with sustainability have been well-documented in the last few years.)
What’s the Solution?
But I think members of the community still value this service, they just don’t value the paper it’s printed on. So how do we continue to support real, important, serious journalism but stop getting a few phonebooks worth of needlessly murdered trees every week? I certainly don’t want to put my paper carrier Sid out of a job, but I would love to get paperless journalism of the same caliber as the printed paper.
We need to find a way for real journalists (sorry, blogosphere, blogging and opinion is not the same as actual journalism) to be supported.
I’m struck by a few relevant sentiments:
- In conversation regarding the limits of the markets to solve social problems, my former fellow Chicagoan Nathaniel Whittemore once used public radio as an example of something that should never move from a donation-based revenue model to an earned revenue strategy (such as from corporate ads) because it would ruin their independence. Are newspapers so different?
- Marketing guru Seth Godin once pointed out that newspapers act as if they are in the business of selling (dead) trees. But of course they aren’t, or shouldn’t be.
So what’s the solution? A major foundation who supports newspapers through large grants each year? Hardly, in some ways that is no different from a few big corporate sponsors as it potentially compromises newspapers’ journalistic independence. No, communities need to support newspapers because a diversified funding base is what ensures that the journalists don’t become too dependent on any single one of us for support that they can’t risk our anger or withdrawal.
Maybe the answer is an “online only” subscription. Maybe newspapers need to change their marketing message from “bringing you the news, weather and commentary” (which I can get elsewhere) to “the investigators who have your back and will pursue the public interest without regard to partisan politics.” Maybe newspapers should adopot the same donation model as public radio.
I brought this up to Colonel Tribune, the gentlemanly Twitter representative for the Chicago Tribune, who may or may not be the collective brain child of a group of (highly entertaining) lunatics over at the newspaper. His response, in the required 140 character limit imposed by the Tweity*:
I was touched by the sentiment (I’m proud to be your people! sniff sniff) and I’ll do both. But I wonder what’s the next step?
Is investigative journalism important to you? Do you get the newspaper? Do you get your news online? What would you be willing to support?
*”Twitter deity.” Too forced? Well, it’s almost midnight. Cut me some slack.