Can newspapers & journalism survive?

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ProPublica has broken many of the rules of traditional journalism, starting with its fervent desire to collaborate with other journalistic entities and with its readers and viewers. A section of their website encourages people to "Steal Our Stories." That's a sentiment and practice straight out of the Web 2.0/ digital era manifesto and mindset.

Likewise, ProPublica has aggressively embraced technology, developing news apps and innovative tools to seed collaboration with users and journalist colleagues. Its reporters and editors also have taken advantage of the scale and velocity of the Web as a dissemination tool.

One of ProPublica's best moments in 2010 also was one of journalism's best moments in 2010. A series of reports called Dollars for Docs by journalists Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein revealed that many of the physicians who earn the highest amounts of pharmaceutical company speakers' fees and drug endorsement dollars, sums upwards of $200,000 annually, are doctors who have compiled disturbing histories of discipline and misconduct. To research the story, ProPublica built a tool that mines the intentionally opaque databases used by pharmaceutical companies.

"It was pretty clear that although these companies had been saying that they had only picked the best and the brightest to give speeches, I'd venture to say they hadn't even Googled them," Engelberg says. "They had no idea of some of these doctors' backgrounds."

As part of the series, which was launched with multiple media partners including The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, and National Public Radio, ProPublica designed a database of doctors and drug endorsers that allows citizens anywhere in America to search for their doctor's name. "At this point, anybody in the United States can punch in the name of their doctor and see if their doctor is giving speeches for big drug companies. That's the kind of knowledge that allows people to hold their doctors accountable," Engelberg says.

One strong admirer of ProPublica, Ethan Zuckerman, is one of the creators and founders of Global Voices, another young journalism venture that cultivates a less investigative voice than ProPublica but shares its digital-age values.

A global network of citizen journalists who are vetted by a small professional editorial staff, Global Voices has succeeded in introducing a new generation of intelligent, fresh voices and perspectives into the media ecology. This is something that likely would never have happened were it left up to traditional, pre-digital era media.

Global Voices serves as a terrific forum for cultural encounters. Many of its writers are young people who craft articles and multimedia pieces about issues of concern to their village or community or their country and get to have them presented on a global stage.

Yet, for all of Global Voices' virtues, even Zuckerman is deeply concerned about its lack of success so far in influencing policy agendas and redirecting powerful players and forces around the world. Further, the unique lens Global Voices has given him into global affairs has reinforced his sense of the criticality of enterprise journalism. For example, if not for the work of professional Nigerian journalists and 234 Next, a publication run by Africa's only Pulitzer Prize winner, Dele Olojede, a former foreign editor of Newsday, Nigerians might never have discovered the whereabouts of their stricken president's body, or about rampant corruption and bribery among government officials.

"Someone needs to be finding facts," says Zuckerman. "There is real reporting that has to be done, so that we can all act as civic actors on a local, national, and global scale. What's really hard is we appear to be willing to hand over that work to organizations like the Associated Press and Reuters who, to be perfectly honest, don't do that work all that well.

"So I would say we're rapidly heading toward some sort of a crisis point around several different types of journalism. I would say that investigative journalism, statehouse journalism, and international journalism are three spaces where I am deeply worried about our ability to provide high-quality coverage over the long term," Zuckerman said.

Two other factors further complicate the crisis in fact-finding and accountability journalism: the hyperpartisan nature of the media and political environment in the United States (a situation in which newspapers and media players have served as accomplices if not primary agents); and the uncertainty around the financial sustainability of the many promising new journalism entrants like ProPublica, which are completely dependent on contributions and foundations.

"The reason ProPublica exists is because of the possibility that the free market and its invisible hand will not address the journalistic needs of the country," ProPublica's Engelberg says. "If we don't have a vibrant and aggressive statehouse press in our state capitols and in every town and city that collects taxpayer money, the chances of abuse clearly rise. Public entities that aren't watched are more likely to abuse. There is no question about that.

"And there is no question there are fewer watchdogs today," Engelberg said. "We have lost tens of thousands of journalistic jobs in the United States. Even if places were overstaffed and even if some of the things they did did not qualify as watchdog or accountability journalism, there is no question valuable parts of our democracy have been lost. And it is not clear how—or if—we will replace those things."

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Spring 2011

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