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Public and Other Noncommercial Media in the Digital Era

April 30, 2010  |  Federal Communications Commission, Washington, D.C.

Remarks by Jan Schaffer, J-Lab Executive Director

Sample news sites included in presentation:Citizen News Sites

The Forum

Twin Cities Daily Planet

New Castle NOWProfessional Journalist Sites

West Seattle Blog


New Haven Independent

Metro News Sites

St. Louis Beacon

Voice of San Diego

Texas Tribune

State Investigative News Sites

California Watch

Wisconsin Watch

Investigate West

University News Sites

Chicago Talks

Intersections: The South Los Angeles Report

Great Lakes Echo

Soft Advocacy Sites

Philadelphia Public School Notebook

Plan Philly

Sunlight Foundation

Thanks for the invitation to speak with you today. Since time is short, I’ll move quickly.

It is critical that the definition of “public” media expand to embrace the nonprofit online news startups rapidly emerging in the U.S. These new digital entities are not only juicing journalism, they are juicing the public as well – in the form of local civic participation. Voter turnout has increased, empty ballot positions have been filled, new players are occupying local offices, wrongdoing has been exposed, issues have been unpacked – all because communities have news they didn’t have before.

The newcomers are more than individual bloggers in their pajamas. They include:

  • Hyperlocal news sites launched by:
    • Citizen volunteers or “citizen journalists.”
    • Independent professional journalists.
  • New metro news sites, usually with a small paid staff.
  • Statewide investigative news networks.
  • University-led community news sites.
  • Soft advocacy news sites.

They are demonstrating a lot of journalism chops. They cover daily happenings in their areas. They are doing watchdog reporting. They are expanding the definition of “news” and the idea of “objectivity.” And, they are building stronger communities, with active, engaged citizens.

Most are accomplishing a great deal with only a fraction of the budgets of many public and commercial news operations. But they need more help. They cannot be self-sustaining overnight.

Many have launched with bare-bones support from founders, funders or donors. A small hyperlocal news site can go live with as little as $1,000, a free WordPress blog and a handful of volunteer reporters. J-Lab gives grants of $25,000 over two years to launch others, enough to give them a presence that has, in most cases, leveraged more support.

Larger metro sites that have paid staffers need $400,000 to $1 million-plus a year to start. Some have larger annual budgets. All are experimenting with hybrid models of support: A combination of grants, donations, memberships, sponsorships, ads, events and some licensed content.

While charitable foundations have jumpstarted many of these sites, almost all need either public or philanthropic support to bolster their attempts to survive.

With the oldest of these new sites now about five years old, they are also able to articulate what kinds of support they need – not only to continue robust reporting but also grow their operations with new technology as well as business and development help.

J-Lab has tracked $143 million in grants to news projects since 2005. And we have funded 52 news startups with $900,000 in micro grants. But the demand to start up more news sites is fierce: We have received 2,734 proposals for these grants since 2005.

Philanthropy is only one leg of the stool. Public, citizen and corporate support should be the other legs. Policymakers can – and should – incentivize not only support for journalism, but also opportunities for people to be civicly engaged by creating and contributing to media, not just casting a ballot.

The new digital news sites are enticing people to participate as news gatherers, innovators, supporters and informed citizens. Some of the new initiatives are discovering success – not just in asking people to pay for content – but also in asking them to be members of a social and knowledge network that includes access to databases, priority admissions to lectures and events, and crowdsourcing their expertise.

As important, these efforts have opened up new avenues of civic participation for community volunteers whose PTA days are behind them. At the hyperlocal level, many are covering town meetings for free ¬- with no freelance payments and no reimbursements for equipment, mileage or babysitters

While you will hear some other ideas later today, we think policymakers can take some steps to help. Among them:

  • Refocus CPB as the Corporation for Public Media
    • Require public broadcasters, as a condition of public support, to demonstrate collaboration with local new media makers – through content sharing, licensed content, micro grants, or providing co-working spaces in their facilities.
  • Create a Public Media Participation Fund
    • Fund via a voluntary buyer tax, 50 cents to $1, on each cell phone, laptop, television purchased. ($110M to $220M per year)
    • ISP’s, cell phone, computer and television manufacturers and retailers should be asked to match these contributions – enticed with business tax deductions, if necessary.
    • Funds should be distributed to new nonprofit news operations for reporting, operating or tech expenses. Award amounts could:
      • Match a project’s current support, capped at $300,000 per year.
      • Be fixed amounts: $25,000 to $300,000 per year, depending on community size or impact.
  • Develop a new section of the IRS Code to cover noncommercial web news sites. It would:
    • Allow news sites to raise more revenue from ads, sponsors, memberships than now allowed for charitable organizations. An L3C designation that allows for revenue but only program-related investments from foundations isn’t enough.
    • Allow corporate sponsors and individuals to take a tax deduction for their contributions. Incentivize these contributions by allowing taxpayers to deduct twice the amount they have contributed to civic media sites.
    • Allow volunteer news contributors to receive a tax credit for their civic media work ($1,000 to $1,500/year.)
    • Allow mileage deductions for citizen reporters @ 50 cents per mile to cover community news instead of 14 cents now allowed for service to charitable organizations.

There will be many hands out for such support – from religious radio stations to youth media literacy projects, and partisan “news” sites. We think it should be directed at local, regional, statewide or national news initiatives – ones that deliver fairness and insight and that enhance transparency in government with databases, eyewitness reporting, participatory journalism and responsible accountability journalism.

Thanks for the opportunity to share these ideas with you.

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