I love my news.  For whatever reason, I find catching up on the world to be one of the most relaxing and rewarding things you can do in your spare time.  Even though I like to read the news, I rarely read a physical newspaper or magazine or watch a news program .  My cell phone and web browser are my gateways to the news world.  I make an exception for especially good local weeklies (Seattle's The Stranger) and very insightful magazines with a broad range of news ( like The Economist ).  But times are tough for newspapers and magazines alike.  Local small-market newspapers are dropping like flies, and even big outfits like The New York Times are struggling.  Digitization has been a painfully slow paradigm shift with major publications.

This is primarily because of a loss in advertising revenue on many fronts.  It's harder to convince a businessman to buy a 6" ad for hundreds of dollars upfront with limited tracking and return when they can buy a search keyword for a fraction of that.  It's also very hard to convince someone to put a classified ad in at a dollar a word when Craigslist will do it for free.  So it's no suprise that there have been any number of propositions about "the future of newspapers."  Most are still advertising focused,  and the general mind set in publishing still seems to ignore what happens when the Long Tail effect hits news and ignoring the peril of wire services.  By this I mean that if finding the news I am interested in is no longer restricted by where I am, then I'll end up reading publications from wherever news comes that interests me, and it becomes harder for any publication to really gain a mental foothold.  Further more, if every time I pick up a newspaper, 80% of the content comes from a news wire service, then that newspaper is no different from any other newspaper I'd run across, and I'm no more or less likely to pick it up in the future.

This is a very tricky situation, that presents no great way out.  But today, I ran across a way that is so worrisomely bad that I've decided to talk about it here.

Ironically, I ran this very bad answer to the problems newspapers are facing on Good, through a link on MSN title "When Newspapers Are Gone".  This is an article about a web site called Spot.Us, where a few community minded individuals pay a reporter to write a news story. 

In my personal opinion, this is a very, very bad idea.

Why?

First and foremost, it's "pay for play" journalism.  If this is the future of news, then the future of news will mean that people who cannot afford to be covered will not be.  What's that mean?  Well, unless you get a lot of donations from a lot of people, no coverage of any danger zone, so most likely no international coverage whatsoever.  If this sort of news becomes popular, than suffering becomes a "tree falls in a forest" problem.  If 1,000 people are killed in an earthquake due to shoddy infrastructure, and no one can afford to report on it, do their deaths mean anything?

The second problem is what I call NIMBY journalism (NIMBY is Not In My Backyard).  An individual can provide up to 20% of the amount required to cover a story, which means that a small group of individuals can fund a story of their own liking. Don't like that eyesore building going up across the street?  Pool 5 of your neighbors and have someone you've never met run a news story about the decline and fall of your neighborhoods look.  Concerned about increasing homelessness in your area?  Fund an article pushing for a homeless shelter far away.

The third problem is funding transparency.  If only a few people can fund a story on Spot.Us, which pitches the story to other major outlets, then it's possible to get stories written that back up your political beliefs.  While Spot.Us does have "fact-checking editors" (a freelance journalist can turn down the first two if they choose), there's little on who watches the watchdogs, less on how retractions work, and nothing that I can see that would prevent individuals with different political slants from funding a story.  As the story is picked up by other outlets, both patent lies and innuendo can seep into the news cycle with a significantly greater pedigree than information recycled from blogs.  While you can see the individuals that sponsored the article on Spot.Us, you do not have any information about their affiliations with companies, and it's unlikely that whoever would pick up a story from Spot.Us would list the individuals who paid for the article.

The fourth problem is that pitch-based news doesn't come up with the news no one wants to hear.  A simple and sarcastic example of this was my time (12 years) writing film reviews.  During this time, I saw a lot of movies I suspected would be awful, not because I particularly wanted to, but because someone has to and my editor gave me marching orders to cover the movies.  Some of them were awful, some of them were unexpectedly great. When journalists do their own pitching of stories entirely, the editorial process is greatly degraded, because people simply do not go out to cover many things, like violent crime (or exceedingly bad movies), without being told to do so.  Sometimes the best stories start from the most mundane pieces of information.

The fifth problem is the transparency in the expenses of a story.  Salaried employees of a newspaper can sometimes expense costs of the story to a newspaper, but there is a lot of transparency in the process.  Receipts must be kept.  Purchases must be justified.  As much as I wish journalists were paid better for their work, I do not believe that they should be their own accountants or set all of their own rates.

A quick look of the story pitches on Spot.Us gives a lot of foundation for these concerns.   Right now, I see a pitch about problems with state adopted children ($500 required), a pitch about a retirement community residents who had to resign from a community board because they formed their own online paper ($25 required), a pitch about why the VOA takes too long to process claims ($1000), a pitch to cover the poor in San Francisco ($500), a pitch about the digital future of Bay Area newspapers ($1000), a pitch about the electricity sources in the Bay Area ($1500), a pitch about if Oakland can survive the next quake ($450), and a pitch about how the recession is hitting bay area hookers ($500).  Each of these pitches raises a lot of questions about what the money's being spent on (especially the last one) and why the rates are so wildly different.  I'd go out on a limb and guess that the community board pitch ($25) is someone who wants to give more legitimacy to their community association dispute.  That there's even a pitch for a digitization of news story on an online news site raises obvious conflict of interest questions.  Several of the stories seem wildly overvalued, and others incredibly under expensed (how can someone assess is Oakland is ready for the next quake for $450?).  Magazines with great readership (hundreds of thousands or even millions) will generally not pay more than a few thousand dollars a story to a freelancer.  Why is a story that can be researched from a laptop while sipping a latte worth $1000?

I apologize to veer off my normal course of technical information and highlighting interesting information that I find online, but the idea of journalism as funded by the angry mob makes me very worried.  Journalism should help the mob become incensed about what they do not know, not become the voice of the angry mob to recruit more members.  Journalists should calm the mob when it is irrationally angry, and not owe their paycheck to the mob.  Journalists should show be a check and balance to the world, instead of balancing their checkbooks by what their neighborhood says is right.

Hope this Helps,

James Brundage [MSFT]