Charity or collaboration?

The New York Times has accepted free stories from ProPublica. It has endorsed a journalist getting help from the public via Spot.US to underwrite a story that might appear at And Poynter’s Bill Mitchell says the paper is even wondering about foundation support for its work (but for perspective, I suspect one could safely say The Times is wondering about any possible economic model of support).

All this is being viewed as charity: giving The Times gifts directly or indirectly to produce journalism in its pages, physical or digital.

I think that’s looking at it – and at The Times – the wrong way. I prefer to think of it as a few of many possible forms of collaboration to create journalism that may or may not appear in the paper (and to which it may or may not link). I prefer to think of the paper as the organizer of networks of journalism.

Thinking that way, then when The Local, the hyperlocal blog at The Times, asked for a volunteer to cover a meeting it wasn’t planning to cover, you could say that it was asking for a charitable act. I’d rather say The Times was opening up to collaboration.

And let’s say that a local blogger covers the meeting and reports on it on her own blog and The Local takes advantage of that by aggregating, curating, quoting, and/or linking to that report. The net result is the same but that’s not charity. It’s cooperation.

Go one step farther: Say that The Times lends a video or sound recorder to that blogger so she can better report on the meeting and provide more coverage to her and The Local’s readers. Is that support an act of charity to the blogger? No, it’s collaboration. (By the way, this will be happening when CUNY provides equipment and training to members of the communities in The Local’s footprint as part of a Carnegie Corporation grant we just received.)

When we define The Times solely as a commercial institution that produces and controls an asset – the news – then any provision of money or effort to it appears to be charity.

But when we define the news as the creation of a larger ecosystem and The Times as just one member of it, then help – money, effort, equipment, training – instead appears to be collaboration.

And once one looks at the ecosystem through the lens of collaboration, then many other things are possible: then The Times (or any other member) could organize many members to work together to produce journalism no one of them could do alone. Then we start to account for the value of the work of the entire news ecosystem not based solely on the size of the staff of the last newsroom standing in the community; we open up to volunteer and entrepreneurial effort that can expand the scope of journalism far, far past what that one newsroom could do.

So I say that The Times and other papers opening up to the work of others supported by others is not an act of begging and charity if it is one bit of evidence of opening up to collaboration.

Now having said all that, I’m aware of the issues that are raised by giving of any sort and Clark Hoyt‘s and Bill Mitchell‘s columns address many of them: the potential for influence from the donor leading the list. There can also be tax questions (only a gift to a 501c3 is a charitable deducation and when is value received by a for-profit company taxable income?). There are labor delicacies when volunteer take on the work formerly done by staffers (there’s one of the reasons that professional journalists sneer at citizen journalism; it’s not always about high standards but instead about self-interest).

Still, I say it’s important to open up journalism and its institutions and players to many kinds of collaboration in a new ecosystem. That cooperation should extend to the commercial – revenue – side of the equation as well, as advertising and ecommerce networks enable each member of the ecosystem to gain more value together than they could alone. This is a key assumption of our work at the CUNY New Business Models for News Project.

One more caution: As we debate and explore the opportunities for charitable and volunteer support of journalism, it is important – critical – that we not declare surrender against the hope that journalism can be sustained in profitable enterprises. This is the keystone of our NewBizNews work at CUNY. We will estimate how much charitable support is possible in a market and what it can buy. We will also emphasize the importance of including volunteer effort in viewing the value of the ecosystem. But we also stipulate that none of that – not foundations, not the goodwill work of bloggers and neighbors – will support the level of reporting and journalism a community needs. And we believe that the market will support journalism – even the growth of journalism – commercially. We are working on models to examine how both the revenue and efficiency of enterprises in the ecosystem – news organizations to bloggers – can be optimized (we’ll be putting out models as we get closer to our first August deadline).

: LATER: Include in this discussion HuffingtonPost’s charitably supported investigative arm; the new Texas Tribune supported by VC John Thornton and friends; and a new philanthropically supported investigative unit in the U.K. They are not the future of journalism; they are part of it.

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  • Bob Wyman

    “the creation of a larger ecosystem”… In such an ecosystem, various roles need to performed. The Times could excel at the editorial role (selection and quality control) and on providing a platform for distributing the news.

    The Times should consider a new corporate motto: “To organize the news and make it universally accessible.” That’s WGWD… This is simply a twist on the existing motto: “All The News That’s Fit To Print.” Rather than just printing the news that Times writers have produced, a New York Times built for today’s world would really seek to print” *all* the news that is *fit* to print and it would seek to make that news universally accessible.

    I’m not arguing that the Times should simply become a mindless aggregator of news in the manner of the various algorithm based systems like DayLife or the offerings of major search providers who seek to publish or link to “All the news there is…” — no matter what its quality. Rather, a new Times would focus on selecting from the myriad of sources of good journalism, on training journalists, on setting standards, assigning stories, etc. Like an aggregator, the new Times would seek to provide a comprehensive news experience that would satisfy the basic news needs of virtually anyone in at least the US. Even hyperlocal news from North Dakota should fit in a new Times — if the local North Dakotan news bureau produces content that meets the editorial standards established by the Times.

    The key market value of the New York Times is Its reputation — built on the quality of its editorial staff and its ability to select high quality journalists. However, in an Internet world, the Times can’t hope to cover any but the most important stories with the tiny staff that it has. If it can learn to apply its editing and news organizing skills to a broader community, it should be able to attract a vastly larger and more appreciative audience — and then monetize that audience.

    bob wyman

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  • Digidave

    As the founder of Spot.Us (and an old friend/colleague of Jarvis) I am bias. But I have to agree with his assesment.

    None of this is about charity to the Times – it is about figuring out how to make journalism more participatory. But doing so means the public is going to get involved.

    Spot.Us looks a lot like charity – because people are donating to journalism, but that is just a very basic means for people to get involved in journalism. Some people don’t have time to do the digging themselves so to get involved they can donate $10 to help pay for somebody that can do the digging.

    Meanwhile others will want to get involved by donating time (not money). Spot.Us is looking into ways to organize those kinds of donations too.

    Essentially: Journalism needs collaboration – but that means journalism needs an engine that can organize those collaborations. The easiest types of collaboration to organize at first, I believe, are financial donations – since they are quick and nobody can argue at the merit/use of money.

    But how else can the public get involved?

    That’s where chin scratching comes in……..

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