A Way to Fund Local Investigative Journalism

Suppose The Boston Globe closed its newsroom tomorrow. Where would we feel the impact most severely?

Not in sports — or breaking news, opinion, slice-of-life stories, arts or business. The web is loaded with alternatives in those areas.

The
challenge for the Boston area would be to replace The Globe’s
investigative reporting and hard news. The sites I linked to above are
great, but none are doing the type of reporting that helped expose abuse in the Catholic Church. Independent publishers can rarely justify weeks of research or coding in order to
produce a single piece of content.

So if the Globe continues to shrink, how will we as a
community continue to give our institutions the scrutiny they need?
Some say we’re already seeing what happens when public scrutiny declines.

One
solution is to create a non-profit local ad network to fund local
investigative journalism projects. The network would be controlled by
the community, and would have a small staff to sell ads, give grants to
reporters, and manage the network. It would be a self-sustaining
mechanism for funding investigative journalism.

Folks I’ve spoken with about this idea have raised two main questions:

(1) Why does the network need to be run by a non-profit?
The
goal is to generate local income to fund local investigative reporting.
In a for-profit company, even one that doesn’t take money from
investors, that goal would be eclipsed by the need to generate income for
the business’ owners. Google and family-run newspapers have been able
to balance wealth creation and the public good, but those are monopoly
businesses. Local online news is a hyper-competitive market. Any
business dallying in unprofitable work like investigative journalism
will be run over.

There’s at least one other reason a non-profit makes sense: Many local
publishers write for non-economic reasons. These publishers are more
likely to work with an ad network created to achieve non-economic goals.

(2) Would the ad network be able to generate enough income to support itself and its goals?
I
don’t know yet. But there’s reason to believe it could improve upon the
AdSense revenue many local publishers currently receive. AdSense undervalues quality local web sites. Impressions and clicks on quality
sites likes Our Daily Red should be more valuable than impressions and clicks on splogs like Dailyred.com,
but with AdSense there’s essentially no difference. A local ad network
would help quality local publishers capture the full value they offer
advertisers, the same way Federated Media does for national publishers.

What do you think? What are the challenges with this approach? How can we try something like this in Boston?

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3 thoughts on “A Way to Fund Local Investigative Journalism

  1. Great idea, Rick! The idea of local advertising on blogs has been around for a while, but I think this could be very successful if it’s tailored to the Boston area. I agree with the reasoning behind forming a non-profit.
    Here are some of my own suggestions:
    – meet with local businesses and bloggers to see what they need
    – help set up websites for local businesses
    business council
    – help advertisers target their audience better with blog categories and category sections on blog (adult content might be an important category)
    – allow for flexible advertising schedules (time of day, day of week, holidays, etc…)
    – develop levels of geographic scope (neighborhood, city, state, zipcode, by distance)
    – offer an ad design and creation process for businesses who need/want help with that
    – allow bloggers to customize advertisements by design, size, etc…
    – track blog traffic to help advertisers understand how valuable each blog is
    – award prizes to blogs/writers who promote investigative journalism
    – seek out grants from foundations
    – set up a blog to track posts of local investigative journalism
    – this network could expand to facilitate local business councils, or work with existing councils
    Challenges:
    – providing advertisements in different languages
    – matching preferences between advertisers and bloggers
    – developing rules for ad placement on blogs (prominence on webpage)
    – compatibility of ad code on webpages of different resolutions, browsers, etc…
    – handling financial transactions

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  2. I don’t agree with the second part of “Many local publishers write for non-economic reasons. These publishers are more likely to work with an ad network created to achieve non-economic goals.” The first part (non-economic rationale for writing) is very true; but I think most or all such author/contributors would be more than happy to work with a conventional ad network. Why not? One inheritance from TV is that the average viewer understands that the content being viewed, and the advertisements around it, are not organically linked.
    It’s still possible such an ad network could appear, of course. Possibly some of the national not-for-profits (NPR comes to mind, with its network of local affiliated stations, most of which have web sites) could get it going. Kind of a non-profit parallel to Outside.In.

    Like

  3. Tom, you raise an important point that I ignore. I think some bloggers will be more inclined to join a non-profit network, other won’t. The question is what the numbers will be.

    Like

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