Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Jason Pramas and Chris Faraone accept an award March 8 at the Somerville Media Center gala at the Center for Arts at the Armory in Somerville. (Photo: Marc Levy)

State legislators have a bill pending to look at what’s wrong with journalism and maybe how to fix it, because, as co-sponsor Rep. Lori Ehrlich said, “As our newsrooms are shrinking, we will have less information and accountability, and that’s not good for democracy.” The bill proposes a volunteer commission, which Jason Pramas at DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has said should include more working journalists, labor unions and others with a ground-level view of the problem. There were “red flags,” for instance, in Harvard being given three of 11 nonpolitical seats at the table, for representatives of the Shorenstein and Nieman centers and Shorenstein’s Ida B. Wells Society.

In a piece last week, Pramas applauds the co-sponsors for saying they’ll reconsider the makeup of the panel, and he underlines further the problems with weighting it toward journalism “experts” who don’t do the work of journalism. He also looks at why no one should rely on a nonprofit model to save the media or democracy, a favorite tune to call from one ivory tower to the next.

For one thing, there’s nothing about the nonprofit model that saves the media from money-grubbing, or from pandering.

“Their money has to come from somewhere,” Pramas writes, and the assumption is “that typical nonprofit news operations manage to get major donations from rich funders.”

But most nonprofit news outlets, like most nonprofits in general, do not get such donations. Nor do they have enough paid staff to get large numbers of small donations to compensate and thus struggle to survive …

Fundraising for nonprofits is extremely competitive in the U.S. – a dilemma made even more dire by the rise of crowdfunding in our society. People are constantly being asked for charitable donations. Day in, day out. Leading to the phenomenon known as “compassion fatigue.” In response, facing an economy that never really allowed working families to recover from the last recession, many people will tend to restrict their limited donations to the organizations that hold the commanding heights in their area of interest. To get more “bang for their buck,” so to speak. But also because – in the “journalism space” – they just can’t keep track of all the smaller news outlets that are trying to get donations. Outlets they hear little about anyway, and therefore don’t trust.

It helps the biggest names in journalism stay the biggest names, with the loudest voices – a phenomenon not too different from the news’ tendency to put the same pundits on air or in print no matter how wrong they’ve been, how many times. 

Giving Harvard so much power on this proposed panel is a good example of the problem, and a recipe for solutions that do not work coming from an institution whose involvement in the problem is literally academic at best.

In February, Shorenstein gave out seven Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, which comes with $10,000 for finalists and $25,000 for the winner. The record high number of submissions for the year showed “the sheer breadth of exceptional investigative journalism being published despite challenging economic conditions,” said Shorenstein director Nicco Mele, but the judges were some of the biggest names in media, and so were the winners: The Wall Street Journal, ProPublica, The Philadelphia Inquirer, PBS’ “Frontline,” The Dallas Morning News and the Alabama Media Group, which boasts on its website of attracting “more than than 48 million consumers.”

It’s tradition at Harvard to reward the winners who are already winning, which makes Harvard a poor choice to help the state figure out ways to promote local journalism in communities that are underserved. As Pramas says, it’s the academy that’s been “sucking up millions of dollars in public and private monies annually for over a decade to try – and thus far largely fail – to solve the myriad problems besetting American journalism. Starting with the crisis of otherwise solid news organizations collapsing every day for lack of funds … that both governments and foundations continue to lavish on academia. Only the tiniest fraction of which ever results in the production of useful and desperately needed journalism in this commonwealth and this nation.”

His full essay is here. A companion piece by colleague Chris Faraone on the flaws of the nonprofit solution du jour, called Report For America, is here.