April 17, 2014 1:27 pm

The birth of a new media species

‘What these non-profits are trying to do is to tap a desire by some rich people to support civic initiatives’
Illustration for Gillian Tett's collumn The birth of a new media species©Andy Martin

Earlier this month, reporter turned hedge-fund manager Neil Barsky threw a lively party in an apartment close to Central Park.

As guests crammed into the room, it became clear that the event had at least two agendas. One was to laud Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova, two members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who have been touring the US to drum up public support and funds for their anti-Putin fight. Their message has gone down well among the East and West Coast media and political elites.

But the second aim of the evening was more subtle: Barsky and his friends are about to launch a non-profit journalism organisation. This entity, called the Marshall Project, wants to shine a spotlight on the US’s criminal justice system, and Barsky recently hired Bill Keller, former editor of The New York Times, to lead the venture. He hopes to have it up and running later this year, with $5m a year in donations from philanthropists.

This might seem like classic New York sociology: in a city that is devoted to the cause of reinvention, and where politics, philanthropy, money and media collide constantly, new foundations emerge all the time, amid parties and brave speeches. But on another level, Barsky’s gathering also signalled a shift that is under way in the ecosystem of information – and philanthropy. Three decades ago, US print and television journalism was dominated by a collection of commercial media behemoths, supplemented by a host of regional tiddlers. Today, many of those regional players have vanished, and most of the largest newspapers are struggling to make (much) money.

This doesn’t mean that journalism is dead. On the contrary, the media world now looks like a chart from a school lesson on evolution, showing the breakpoint between the Jurassic and Cretaceous eras: whereas there used to be just a few species, now a plethora of new mutations is leaping off the page, using cheap technology to launch start-ups in different niches.

Many of these new enterprises, as my colleague John Gapper noted last week, hope to make a profit (eventually). But perhaps the more intriguing ones, in terms of the civic role of journalism, are the non-profit groups. Some, such as the Marshall Project, are using private donations to establish themselves before seeking other revenue streams. Others, such as ProPublica, an investigative group created in 2008 by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, have multimillion-dollar foundations underwriting their efforts.

Either way, what these non-profits are trying to do is to tap a desire by some rich people to support civic initiatives – and produce deep investigative journalism in areas that the mainstream media often ignore, because it is unfashionable or just not commercially viable. “The philanthropist community is becoming attuned to the need to support certain forms of journalism,” Steiger says. These mutations often collaborate with traditional media groups. But they also use media such as Twitter to distribute information on their own, and sometimes beat newspapers at their own game. This week, for example, the non-profit Center for Public Integrity won a Pulitzer Prize; ProPublica has done the same in earlier years.

However, if Barsky is correct, this is just the start of a bigger trend. “In future a larger percentage of journalism will be funded through philanthropy,” he says, suggesting that the modern media are now becoming akin to museums or orchestras – endeavours that are valuable but not always commercially viable, at least not when diving into serious issues. “I think that there is a civic value to journalism which the market cannot support.”

. . .

Many established media executives hotly rebut this idea (and the FT, I should point out, is a proudly commercial entity). In Europe, many journalists have also traditionally assumed that if commercial models are under threat, it is the state, not philanthropists, that should step in. But this is now changing. Never mind the fact that The Guardian newspaper is being kept alive by the Scott Trust, Steiger says that efforts are under way in some European countries to copy ProPublica: “Germany is very interested in non-profit models . . . and there is some stirring in Italy.”

Of course, this still represents only a small fraction of the total media world. But the key point is this: plurality is a good thing, not just in terms of viewpoints and subject matter but funding models too. After all, there are big drawbacks to commercial media models, philanthropic journalism and state-funded media models. But probably the best (or only) way to cope with those flaws is to ensure that none of these three models has a monopoly; diversity creates checks and balances.

So I for one hope that Barsky’s venture flourishes – and not just because there is a burning need to start a more thoughtful conversation about the criminal justice system in the US (and, as the Pussy Riot band members pointed out at that New York party, in Russia too). In a world increasingly ruled by celebrity soundbites, the sight of entrepreneurs trying to start national debates about complex, weighty matters is to be celebrated; not least because this was not something media doomsters might have expected a decade ago.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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