Journalism Is Becoming a Form of Social Entrepreneurship

By Smith, Jeremy Adam | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Journalism Is Becoming a Form of Social Entrepreneurship


Smith, Jeremy Adam, Stanford Social Innovation Review


A new generation of journalists is developing for-profit and nonprofit enterprises to keep citizens informed BY JEREMY ADAM SMITH

On July 2, 2007, the financially troubled San Jose Mercury News told all its employees to stay home and wait for a phone call. At 8:09 a.m. the next day, reporter Janice Rombeck's phone rang. "Janice, we're going to have to lay you off," said the voice on the other end. Rombeck, 59, started at The Wichita Eagle in Kansas in 1974 as a copy editor and then went to the San Jose Mercury News in 1985. In the decade before she was laid off, she covered City Hall decisions through the reportorial lens of residents and neighborhoods.

Rombeck was devastated by the news, but she wasn't alone. In the subsequent four years, the Mercury News would fire almost 300 other reporters and editors. Those laid-off employees were just one small slice of the nationwide pie. According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 36 percent of newspaper jobs have disappeared in the past decade, a level that suggests journalists are experiencing a prolonged, sector-specific economic depression, one that has no end in sight I myself was laid off from my job as a magazine editor in 2009, and it was truly scary to discover the dearth of writing and editing positions on job websites.

These personal dramas are just one- and not even the most important-dimension of a larger crisis: As a result of the contraction of both mainstream and alternative media (a distinction that seems increasingly quaint), there are simply fewer trained eyes on city halls, police departments, and schools. As Ken Doctor writes in the Newsonomics blog for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, "That news gathering ... is what's key to community information and understanding, fairly prerequisite in our struggling little democracy."

It's a social time bomb with an economic fuse. From 2006 to 2010, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, ad revenue for US newspapers fell 48 percent- largely because online businesses such as Craigslist, Groupon, and Google ate their lunch. Contrary to what many people believe, news audiences have not diminished- only news revenue.

But journalists like Rombeck are not fading into unemployment lines. Instead, they are collaborating with each other and pioneering new editorial and business models, as Rombeck did last year when she launched NeighborWebSJ, which turns her old beat at the Mercury News into a new media venture that combines forprofit and nonprofit methods.

As a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, I discovered that Rombeck's story is becoming increasingly commonplace-and that in many ways, the economic crisis has brought out the best in journalism. I surveyed 170 journalists online about how they are financing investigative, explanatory, watchdog, and analytical stories, projects I put under the umbrella of Meaningful journalism." I surveyed another 200 about how they see their careers unfolding over the next 10 years. I also combed through the raw numbers of a detailed study of San Francisco Bay Area journalist employment, released in April 2011 by the North Valley Job Training Consortium.

My findings suggested that journalism is becoming a form of social entrepreneurship - an endeavor that combines commercial and nonprofit methods to achieve social change.

Participants in my surveys overwhelmingly cited a desire to change the world as their primary motivation for doing journalism, with financial motivations coming in last by a wide margin. "If I were driven by money, I would not be in journalism," said one survey participant Another said he was a journalist to expose corruption and prevent "attempted corruption."

A stunning 71 percent of participants said that over the next five years, traditional commercial media would become even less important to meaningful journalism, and 84 percent said social ventures like NeighborWebSJ would become more important Participants described a clizzying array of nonprofit and for-profit funding streams for their projects and their personal incomes: advertising, micro-payments, donations, grants, product sales, and more.

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