You may have seen some of our earlier stories on “Covering State Government Today, On the Frontlines with Nonprofit News,” along with “The Changing Nature of News: A Study of Five Online Nonprofit Groups.” Nonprofit and online news organizations are where reporting is happening at the state and local levels as traditional news reporting recedes with declining advertising and funding. But what are the challenges, other than funding, that these smaller news organizations face?
Threats Facing Citizen Journalists
Even with all the foment of new media channels and multiplying sources of information, there are profound threats from having fewer journalists on the beat. We tend to think of some relatively recent journalistic work like Watergate, the Clinton Impeachment, NSA Wiretapping, and others. Wikipedia has even assembled a complete list of U.S. federal political scandals dating back to the 1700s.
A few things closer to home actually pose considerable concern. For example, GreenTech Automotive filed an $85 million lawsuit against the Franklin Center for our reporting. This suit was tossed out of court, but it is the type of thing that poses a considerable threat to fledgling news organizations and citizen journalists who do not have the resources or skill sets to defend themselves while continuing to report the facts as they see them.
Here are just a few of the threats and concerns that readily come to mind:
- Libel Suits. These suits can be used by organizations and governments to shut down reporting, including any financial support. How does a citizen journalist or small organization defend itself in these situations?
- Access Issues. There is a growing challenge of gaining access as a journalist if you do not have a business card from a major news outlet. How does a small organization or citizen journalist challenge a refusal to allow access?
- Protecting Sources. You may have seen our work about media shield laws. How does a citizen journalist or small organization find the legal talent to help them battle court or government directed efforts to identify confidential sources?
- Freedom of Information Requests. These can be blocked, delayed, or redacted to the point of obfuscation. How does a small organization develop the skill set and stamina to pursue this vital method of gathering information?
In addition to threats there are limitations to news reporting that happen as a result of smaller organizations or even solo journalists reporting the news. These include:
- Multiple Stories. It can come down to production capacity. How does a solo journalist or smaller organization cover multiple stories at any one time?
- Big Data. More and more we are finding large news organizations sifting through big chunks of data to identify trends and develop insight into changes. How does a small organization find the skills and staff to accomplish this task?
- Legislative Activity. While a small organization may be able to dig into one or two key stories, how does it keep on top of all that is of concern on its particular beat? For example, BillTrack50 provides mounds of data on legislation underway at the federal and state level. If your beat is California, how do you keep up with the more than 1,000 bills? Plus, state resources vary by how up-to-date and robust their website is with legislative information and more.
- Fact Checking. How does the smaller organization dig deep to back up their facts and do so without breaking the bank or running out of time? FactCheck.org and Politifact.com are two resources, but there needs to be more.
- Power of Brands. There is a real power of brands. For example, the New York Times generates a great deal of credibility and power in addition to bringing considerable resources to bear on reporting. For small organizations or citizen journalists it is BYOB—Build Your Own Brand.
The good news is that for nearly every threat a growing capability is being developed on the Internet to assist journalists. But even so, a critical mass of resources and expertise are still required to defend lawsuits and pursue leads that elude the best of citizen journalists or the smaller news organizations.
Another promising trend is for larger news brands to pick up stories from the smaller outfits. This is particularly appropriate in statehouse or investigative reporting where the mainline news organizations have significantly cut back on their own coverage and capabilities.
How Can You Respond?
Those threats can be overcome by supporting the revolution in reporting across the breadth of new media that has been emerging over the past several decades. These include our own watchdog reporting that continues to grow – now in place in 36 states, and expanding its coverage within those states.
You can also support those organizations and issues that are near and dear to your own heart. For example, we have invested considerable energy and resources both publicizing and shaping the debate about a media shield law. John Fund at the National Review says, “What the Franklin Center is doing is the most exciting thing in journalism.”