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A New Horizon for the News

The American news business today finds itself trapped in a grim paradox. Financially, its prospects have never seemed bleaker. By some measures, the first quarter of 2009 was the worst ever for newspapers, with sales plunging $2.6 billion. Last year, circulation dropped on average by 4.6 percent on weekdays and 4.8 percent on Sundays. Earlier this year, Detroit’s two daily papers reduced home delivery to three days a week, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ended its print edition, and the Rocky Mountain News shut down altogether. This summer, The Boston Globe, which is losing more than $50 million a year, survived only by giving in to the draconian cutbacks demanded by its owner, the New York Times Company, while the Times itself, weighed down by the Globe, had to take out a $250 million loan from Carlos Slim Helú, Mexico’s richest man, at a junk-bond-level interest rate of 14 percent a year.

Yet amid all this gloom, statistics from the Internet suggest that interest in news has rarely been greater. According to one survey, Internet users in 2008 spent fifty-three minutes a week reading newspapers online, up from forty-one minutes in 2007. And the traffic at the top fifty news Web sites increased by 27 percent. While this growth cut across all age groups, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism found, “it was fueled in particular by young people.” The MTV generation, known for its indifference to news, has given way to the Obama generation, which craves it, and for an industry long reconciled to the idea of its customers dying off, the reengagement of America’s young offers a rare ray of hope.

How could the financial fortunes of a $50 billion–plus industry decline so swiftly while its product remains so prized? The most immediate explanation is the collapse of what has long been the industry’s economic base: advertising. The traditional three staples of newspaper advertising—automotive, employment, and real estate—have all drastically declined, thanks to Craigslist, eBay, the travails of Detroit, and the consolidation of department stores (resulting in fewer retail ad pages). Meanwhile, the steady expansion of space on the Internet has caused online ad rates to crash, and these are not expected to recover even when the economy as a whole does.

The fall-off in ad revenues has been compounded by another phenomenon that newspaper executives would rather not discuss: their own greed. The relentless stress placed on acquisition and consolidation, which dominated the industry for decades, helped drain money out of newsrooms and into the pockets of shareholders. It also shifted the locus of decision-making from locally based citizens to distant corporate boards. Most harmful of all, efforts to build large media conglomerates have saddled newspaper companies with astounding levels of debt, much of it taken on to buy other newspaper companies. The Tribune Company has been in bankruptcy court since October, wrestling with the fallout from Sam Zell’s highly leveraged purchase of Times Mirror, while McClatchy Newspapers, having paid top dollar for the Knight Ridder chain, has been selling off papers to keep its creditors at bay.

When it comes to mismanagement, then, the newspaper business seems in a class with Detroit. Unlike GM, though, newspapers offer a product that consumers still value. But how to cash in on it? As the old business models fade, new ones are urgently being tested. Surveying the blackened landscape, I searched for new buds—and stumbled upon something much larger.

1.

In April, The Christian Science Monitor became the first nationally circulated newspaper to end its daily print edition and concentrate on the Web. Having lost nearly $20 million in 2008, the paper wanted to shed the onerous costs associated with printing and delivery. (It still prints a weekly edition.) Some observers saw this as a harbinger for the industry, the start of a mass migration from print to digital. A look at the numbers, however, suggests otherwise. For all the growth in visitor traffic to newspaper Web sites, most online readers don’t linger there. According to one study, of all the time readers spend with a newspaper, 96 percent of it is spent on print editions and barely more than 3 percent on the Web. Similarly, of the $38.5 billion spent on newspaper ads in 2008, just $3 billion was spent on the Web. With numbers like these, print is not going away anytime soon.

For publishers, the key is to find a way to maximize revenues from print and the Web. And here a great sea change is occurring. Since the late 1990s, when the first news sites were introduced on the Internet, most papers have offered untrammeled access to them. “Information wants to be free,” the digirati proclaimed, and publishers dutifully went along. And for a while, that strategy paid off: as traffic grew, ad revenues did, too. With the steady fall-off of advertising since 2006, however, the free-for-all philosophy has lost its appeal.

Adding to the disillusionment is the growing recognition of the part that free access to the Web has played in the hemorrhaging of circulation. “When we look at why people quit buying the newspaper, it’s overwhelmingly because ‘I can get it for free online,’” William Dean Singleton, the CEO of MediaNews Group, the nation’s fourth-largest newspaper company, recently said. Whenever the Times’s Bill Keller and other top editors speak in public, they invariably encounter readers who, expressing amazement at being able to read the paper online for free, plead for ways to donate to it. In 2002, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette started charging for online content. While it has signed up only 3,400 subscribers, the circulation of its daily print edition has held steady at around 180,000 at a time when that of most other papers has fallen, and its owner, Walter Hussman Jr., has traveled around the country describing how charging for Web content can help stop the bleeding.

Publishers are taking heed. In the next year, many are expected to erect “pay walls”—i.e., charges for access—around their sites. The challenge is getting the height right. Receiving the most attention are “hybrid” models that, part pay and part free, seek to gain subscribers while maintaining a steady flow of online readers.

There are two main models. The Financial Times uses a “meter,” or quota, approach. Visitors to FT.com are allowed access to a few free articles a month; to get more, they have to subscribe. This has netted the FT 117,000 subscribers paying up to $299 a year. Affluent and educated, those readers are very attractive to advertisers and so generate considerable ad revenue as well.

The Wall Street Journal’ s policy is much less restrictive. Visitors to WSJ .com are allowed free access to all articles about politics, culture, and other general-interest topics. Only those seeking entry to the Journal‘s business and finance reports must pay. Soon after Rupert Murdoch bought the Journal, in 2007, he announced that, to draw traffic to its Web site, he was going to make access to it completely free, but, seeing the softness of the ad market, he quickly reconsidered, and reports on business and finance have remained behind a pay wall. Today, WSJ.com has 1.1 million subscribers paying $100 to $140 a year. And with the number of unique visitors to the site surpassing 12 million in April, traffic remains brisk. As Murdoch recently acknowledged, the Journal‘s digital revenues “are not a gold mine,” but, he added, “People reading news for free on the Web, that’s got to change.” In recent weeks, executives at Murdoch’s News Corp. have been meeting with other publishers about forming a consortium to charge for news delivered online.

Such moves rankle advocates of free access to the Internet. Among the most vocal is Arianna Huffington, the cofounder and editor in chief of the popular Internet news-and-blog site The Huffington Post. “Walled gardens,” she insists, don’t work; the “link economy” is here to stay. (Free links, it must be noted, are vital to The Huffington Post’s health.) As evidence that pay walls don’t work, Huffington and others point to TimesSelect. Introduced by The New York Times in September 2005, it placed the paper’s columnists behind a pay wall and charged online readers $49.95 a year for admission. Two years later, the Times, concerned by the fall-off in traffic, reinstated its free-for-all policy.

Even that limited test, however, attracted 220,000-plus paying subscribers. If the Times were to place even more, or different, content behind a pay wall and find the right entrance fee, it would no doubt gain many more. For months, the paper’s executives have been studying various pay options, and they plan to offer one or more in the fall.

A lot will be riding on what they decide. Aside from being the nation’s top newspaper, the Times has devoted far more money and manpower to its digital edition than any other paper. At its Midtown office, teams of cybergeeks, futurists, and “creative technologists” have worked feverishly to combine traditional journalistic practices with the protean powers of the Web. Their imprint is apparent in the welter of videos, multiband graphs, sumptuous pie charts, slide shows, and time lines at NYTimes .com. Now, in addition to reading Nicholas Kristof’s descriptions of malnutrition in Africa, you can watch a video of him interviewing some of the victims. On an interactive photo feature titled “Casualties of War,” a click on a montage of photos of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan summons up mini-profiles of each. A “word train” offers a snapshot of what’s on reader’s minds by displaying in varying type sizes the adjectives they send in based on the frequency of their mention.

There are blogs galore—Andrew Revkin on the environment, Paul Krugman on the economy, Errol Morris on whatever’s on his mind—plus leisurely features like “One in 8 Million,” an audio slide show about ordinary New Yorkers (linked to a regular feature in the print edition), and “The Puppy Diaries,” managing editor Jill Abramson’s weekly musings on her new pet.

For an institution long known as the “Gray Lady,” it’s a dazzling mix. But is it on the right track? Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times, told me:

The prerequisite for establishing a pay-for-content model is good content—must-read content. It’s extremely important in the modern news business to be clear on what your comparative advantage is. If you want to be everything to everybody and spread your resources too thin, you’re going to get into trouble.

The FT‘s comparative advantage, he added, “is business and financial.” The New York Times‘s advantage, he argues, is its “global network” and its “deep and original reporting.” While some observers maintain that the FT and The Wall Street Journal are uniquely able to charge for content because the information they offer is so valuable to businessmen, Barber believes that a high-quality general-interest paper like The New York Times can charge as well.

(The FT, by the way, has introduced a number of specialized services, like “China Confidential,” which offer inside information on high-value subjects to readers willing to pay a premium. This points to another potentially lucrative revenue source for news organizations.)

The Times site does offer much excellent content. Too often, though, it seems overwhelmed by gadgets and gizmos, features and fluff. Technologically in a class by itself, the paper has seemed less adept at grasping the Web’s potential to spotlight issues and stir debate. This summer, for instance, the blogosphere lit up over “The Great American Bubble Machine,” Matt Taibbi’s provocative Rolling Stone article about the political and financial power of Goldman Sachs. On the few occasions on which the Times took note of the story, it was with Olympian disdain. Imagine the stir it would have created had it hosted a Web forum on the piece under a headline like “Is Goldman Sachs a Bubble Machine?” In the long run, such features would, I think, draw far more traffic than word trains or puppy diaries.

Still, the Times seems likely to attract many readers even after it begins charging for content. In view of its unique place in American journalism, it seems certain to weather the current crisis. The same seems true of America’s other nationally read papers, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. (The Los Angeles Times might be able to join them if it is able to find ways to exploit its own comparative advantage—coverage of the entertainment industry.) Many of the nation’s smaller papers have their own advantage—they’re the only news source in town—and many are thriving. It’s the large metropolitan dailies like The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, and The Miami Herald that, contending with both large staffs and brisk competition, are the most endangered, and it’s widely feared that one or more will go under in the coming years.

Such a development would be catastrophic for the public. As gatherers and purveyors of information, newspapers are without peers, and the retrenchment they’re undergoing is seriously eroding their ability to enlighten and expose. At the same time, the industry’s travails are serving as a stimulus. A restless array of entrepreneurs, innovators, and idealists—taking advantage of the Internet’s low entry barriers—has emerged, testing new ways of delivering the news. Are any succeeding?

2.

So far, the attention paid to new Web ventures has focused mainly on the for-profit sector. Most of these sites are pursuing roughly the same strategy—building sufficient Web traffic to attract advertisers. And most are after the same market—the 25 million or so affluent, educated Americans who roughly overlap with the audience for NPR. Three of these enterprises in particular seem to be making a go of it. One is Slate. Founded in 1996 with the help of Microsoft, it initially struggled, but since being purchased by the Washington Post Company, in 2004, it has generally been profitable. Deriving 95 percent of its revenue from ads, Slate owes its success both to the Post‘s backing and to its own journalistic formula—sharply written contrarian pieces offered for free on its site and promoted with clever headlines (for example, “Where Are the Jewish Gangsters of Yesteryear? Or, what we can learn about ‘respectability’ from Bernie Madoff and Meyer Lansky”). In an effort to replicate Slate’s success, the Post in 2008 created the Slate Group, and since then it has introduced several spin-offs, including The Root (African- American affairs), The Big Money (business), and ForeignPolicy.com.

The online arm of Foreign Policy magazine, ForeignPolicy.com is in some ways the most interesting, offering free access to both punchy articles from the magazine and a roster of contentious, thoughtful blogs written by such disparate figures as the military reporter Thomas Ricks; the Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt, coauthor of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy ; and Marc Lynch, a Middle East specialist at George Washington University. It also has offered some original reporting in the form of “The Cable,” Laura Rozen’s behind-the-scenes look at US foreign policy making. (In late August, however, it was announced that Rozen was leaving ForeignPolicy .com to work at Politico.) The model, according to executive editor Susan Glasser, is the newspaper Roll Call, which has long offered advertisers a cost-effective means of reaching a select Capitol Hill audience. Glasser says she’s optimistic but acknowledges that, to date, “We haven’t cracked the code.”

Politico seems to have. After not quite three years, Politico attracts on average about 3.2 million unique visitors a month. Its founders say it’s in the black, though by how much is difficult to say, since it’s owned by Allbritton Communications, a privately held, TV-rich conglomerate. Politico’s hundred-person staff works out of Allbritton’s office building in Arlington, Virginia, and it’s hard to separate Politico’s overhead from that of its parent. Fully dependent on ad revenue, Politico gets much of it from its print edition, which is published five times a week when Congress is in session and—distributed free of charge—has a circulation of 32,000. In other words, Politico, one of the Web’s success stories, remains in no small part dependent on print.

The one site that has turned a profit without the aid of print or a sponsor is Talking Points Memo. In nine years, Josh Marshall has built it from a one-man blog into a bustling political journal with 1.5 million unique visitors a month. TPM relies mainly on advertising—everything from Comcast to T-shirt companies—and its combination of low overhead and an engaged readership has enabled it to thrive. Over the summer, Marshall agreed for the first time to accept outside capital—between $500,000 and $1 million from a group of investors that includes Netscape founder Marc Andreessen. With it, he plans to expand his site from its current eleven employees to about twenty, with the possibility of adding more if the site’s traffic—and revenues—expand sufficiently.

The challenge TPM faces is evident from the experiences of a younger, flashier sibling. The Huffington Post seems in a state of constant motion. In just four years, it has conjured up a cast of bloggers numbering in the thousands, a Washington staff of seven, an investigative unit, and local editions in Chicago and New York. The company has been coy in discussing its earnings, saying only that it is profitable in some months and not profitable in others. In June, the company announced that it was replacing its CEO of the last two years, Betsy Morgan, with Eric Hippeau, one of its original investors. The reason, Arianna Huffington has said, is that the company was not sufficiently “monetizing the traffic.” Though ad revenue has been growing briskly, the company feels it needs to attract far more display advertising—a challenge facing all sites.

Of all the for-profit experiments out there, the most intriguing, perhaps, is Global Post. Launched in January with close to $10 million in start-up funds from private investors, this site already has seventy-four part-time correspondents in fifty countries. The co-founder and editorial chief, Charles Sennott, a former Boston Globe correspondent, says that the “void” created by the cutbacks in foreign reporting has created “an opportunity. We want to be one of the sites that Americans regularly go to when they think about the world.” In June, Sennott and a photographer spent nearly three weeks in Afghanistan, producing a multimedia medley of articles, podcasts, videos, and slide shows about the US fight against the Taliban. (To date, the site seems to lean more toward straight reporting than in-depth analysis, focusing on questions like “Who are the Taliban?” rather than “Should we be in Afghanistan?”)

The service does not come cheap: in addition to paying most of its correspondents $1,000 a month for four stories, it has a full-time staff of sixteen in Boston. To help meet that payroll, Global Post foresees three revenue streams: advertising, membership, and syndication. Of these, the last seems the most promising; already, it has signed contracts with ten papers to run its stories, including The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (a five-figure deal) and The Newark Star-Ledger. In the course of a long phone conversation, Sennott grew animated as he described his experiment and its potential for radically transforming foreign reporting, offering global dispatches at a fraction of the rate charged by the AP. Yet as I listened, I couldn’t help but think of the huge sums needed to keep his operation afloat and to wonder where they’d come from. The same was true for the commercial sector as a whole. For all the impressive projects out there, their economic base seems tenuous, and my encounters with them left me feeling sobered by the obstacles they face.

3.

My inquiries into the nonprofit world, by contrast, left me heartened. Here I found all kinds of excited activity. Much of it, I discovered, had been set in motion by an Op-Ed piece that appeared in the Times in late January. David Swensen, the chief investment officer for Yale’s endowment management team, and Michael Schmidt, a financial analyst there, argued that in light of the struggles of newspapers, they should consider turning themselves into nonprofit endowed institutions, like universities. “Endowments,” they wrote, “would enhance newspapers’ autonomy while shielding them from the economic forces that are now tearing them down.” Taking the Times as an example, they estimated that, with a newsroom costing somewhat more than $200 million a year to run, and with some additional outlays for overhead, the paper would need an endowment of around $5 billion. “Enlightened philanthropists must act now or watch a vital component of American democracy fade into irrelevance,” they declared.

Swensen is widely known as an expert on university investing, and the article set off a storm of speculation. On his blog at The New Yorker, Steve Coll, calculating that The Washington Post (his former employer) would need an endowment of $2 billion, called on Warren Buffett to write a check to the paper in that sum. In Washington, Senator Benjamin Cardin introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act, designed to make it easier for newspapers to qualify as nonprofits under federal law, and John Kerry convened hearings in the Senate on how to save America’s newspapers.

The image of the Times and the Post protected by huge endowments seems comforting indeed. Unfortunately, it’s entirely unrealistic. Turning those papers into nonprofits would require the Sulzbergers and the Grahams to voluntarily give away their wealth. Even if they were so moved, where would all those billions come from? They simply aren’t out there. In light of the dramatic fall-off in the value of Yale’s own endowment, Swensen’s proposal seems doubly unpersuasive.

Yet by highlighting the industry’s struggles, the article “sort of rang the bell,” I was told by John Thornton, an Austin-based venture capitalist turned philanthropist and news entrepreneur. Last year, Thornton, seeking investment opportunities in the news business, couldn’t find any. The golden era of commercial news, which had lasted from 1960 to 2005 and which had been based on the confluence of a booming population with an explosion in advertising, seemed gone for good. Where journalism is concerned, he came to believe, “you can’t serve God and Mammon at the same time.” Alarmed by the sharp decline in the number of journalists covering Texas politics, Thornton set out to raise money for a nonprofit online service. He didn’t get very far—until the Times article appeared.

In the months since, he’s been able to raise more than $1 million from wealthy friends, in addition to $1 million he’s put up himself, toward a goal of about $4 million. The Texas Tribune is scheduled to begin operations in November. Already, it’s snapped up some of the state’s top journalists, including Evan Smith, the respected former editor of Texas Monthly. Thornton has since become an evangelist for non-commercial news, urging his fellow philanthropists to invest in it because “the bang for the buck”—the satisfactions of improved coverage—is so high.

Scott Lewis, the CEO of Voice of San Diego, shares his enthusiasm. Founded in February 2005 by Buzz Woolley, a retired venture capitalist disturbed at the cutbacks taking place at The San Diego Union-Tribune, this community-based nonprofit Web site offers a daily dose of local and regional news and commentary. Its nine professional journalists have broken many stories, including the existence of a clandestine bonus ring at a San Diego development corporation. It does all this on an annual budget of $1 million. “If we could get to two or three million, we could do amazing things,” says Lewis, who, in addition to running the site, writes a popular political blog. And he thinks that’s very attainable. “I’m bullish that reporting can survive and even thrive in a nonprofit model,” he said. Currently, the site gets 40 percent of its revenue from foundations such as the Knight Foundation and the San Diego Foundation, 30 percent from large donors, and the rest from corporate sponsors and smaller donors giving $50 or $100. The potential of smaller donors to give more is huge, says Lewis, adding that “we’re being contacted by people from all around the country who want to start something like this.”

In the last two years, similar non-profit sites have sprung up in the Twin Cities, New Haven, Seattle, St. Louis, and Chicago. The same entrepreneurial spirit has led as well to a surge of interest in investigative reporting not seen since the days after Watergate. The standard-bearer here is ProPublica, the national team of investigators backed by a well-endowed club of donors, but there’s also been a proliferation of smaller start-ups, like Investigate West (based outside Seattle), the Watchdog Center (San Diego), and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, all seeking to expose corrupt officials, corporate crime, and exploitative working conditions. Investigative reporting has also caught fire at the nation’s journalism schools, with institutes committed to teaching and supervising such work established at American, Brandeis, Boston University, and Columbia. Sheila Coronel, who runs the Columbia center, says that this year 120 students applied for the fifteen spots in her class —double the number of a year ago—a development she attributes to a new wave of idealism among America’s young.

In early July, the representatives of two dozen such centers met at Pocantico, the Rockefeller estate in Tarrytown, New York, to discuss ways of collaborating. In a unanimous resolution, they committed themselves to establishing, “for the first time ever, an Investigative News Network of nonprofit news publishers throughout the United States of America,” with a mission “to foster the highest quality investigative journalism, and to hold those in power accountable, at the local, national and international levels.” Following up, subcommittees are now studying ways to foster cooperation in conducting investigations, displaying work on the Web, and—most importantly—securing funding. “I’ve been doing investigating reporting for thirty years,” says Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity and an architect of the new network, “and this is by far the most interesting time I’ve seen.”

There’s a big pool of money in the nonprofit world—we need to see if we can tap into it,” says Joel Kramer, the founder of MinnPost, the community-based site in the Twin Cities, who stresses how challenging it is to make an Internet news operation work. “Even on a nonprofit site, you have to find ways to make enough money to cover the costs.” To date, the funding of nonprofit journalism has been led by the Knight Foundation, under the direction of former Miami Herald publisher Alberto Ibargüen, with added support from Carnegie, Ford, MacArthur, and George Soros’s Open Society Institute. Benjamin Shute Jr. of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which hosted the Pocantico meeting, says that more foundations are showing interest, but, he warned, most

don’t see themselves in the sustaining business. They’re like venture capital firms—they like to get things started but then want to see them take on lives of their own. At least a significant proportion of income has to come from other sources.

When it comes to cultivating such sources, everyone looks to one organization for guidance: NPR. At a time when not only newspapers but also commercial broadcasters are struggling, NPR has thrived. In 2008, the cumulative weekly audience for its daily news shows increased by 9 percent, to a record 20.9 million listeners. Though not immune to the economic downturn—in December 2008, it eliminated sixty-four jobs, or 7 percent of its workforce, and in April, it cut thirteen more positions and announced five-day furloughs for all remaining staff—NPR remains robust enough to maintain seventeen bureaus abroad and another nineteen at home. To keep all that afloat, it draws on several money sources: its endowment, foundations, corporate underwriting, and dues and fees from its more than 860 member stations, all of which are noncommercial. This last stream is the largest, making up 43 percent of the total. Most of that money is raised from listeners during those annoying pledge drives. In short, NPR is supported mainly by those who actually consume its product—a huge advantage at a time of anemic advertising.

NPR is planning an ambitious campaign to boost the reporting capacities of its member stations. “We’re trying to raise money on behalf of not just NPR but journalism at local radio stations—to raise the level of reporting both on radio and the Web and to step up the coverage that local papers can’t produce,” I was told by Vivian Schiller, NPR’s chief executive. Eventually, she says, NPR hopes to connect these stations into a national network anchored by its Web site. Accomplishing this, Schiller says, would be expensive—the news operations at many public stations are primitive—“but not,” she adds, “as expensive as a start-up—we don’t need bricks and mortar.”

Listening to Schiller, I began to envision the outlines of a new type of news system in the United States, one rooted in the public radio stations that reach into nearly every town and county in the country. If the news-gathering abilities of these stations were truly fortified, they could help fill in the gaps in local news being left by the downsizing of daily papers. They could also provide nodes of collaboration for all those innovative Web sites out there, both for- and not-for-profit.

These sites and stations, in turn, could enter into relationships with daily newspapers. The information-gathering functions of those papers cannot be replaced, but, as their staffs shrink, they could receive a valuable boost from collaboration with nonprofits. The network could also provide a home for all those enterprising bloggers out there, drawing on their knack for instigation, indignation, and outrage, as well as a place for nonjournalistic organizations like Human Rights Watch and the National Security Archive that are carrying out their own forms of investigation and documentation. Finally, if PBS were to expand its operations and mesh them more tightly with NPR’s, there could finally begin to emerge in America a truly national noncommercial news system, akin to the BBC.

America will never have a BBC. The government funding isn’t there. What we do have, though, is a tremendous increase in enthusiasm and initiative that, in the age of the Internet, counts for more than transmitters and printing presses. The retreat of the giant corporations and conglomerates is creating the opportunity for fresh structures to emerge. It remains to be seen whether foundations, wealthy donors, and news consumers will step forward to support them. (Nonprofit Web sites and public broadcasters, it is worth noting, are, in effect, partly subsidized by the public, through the tax deductions taken for the grants and donations made to them.)

The opening won’t last forever. Lurking in the wings is a potential new class of media giants. Google, Yahoo, MSNBC, and AOL, all have vast resources that could finance a new oligopolistic push on the Web. Sheila Coronel, who directed an investigative reporting center in the Philippines before joining the Columbia faculty, sees parallels between what’s occurring here and what took place there after the fall of Marcos. As the old media monopolies crumbled, a host of smaller players rushed forward, offering a new plurality of voices. Before long, however, the rich and powerful regained control, and those new voices were snuffed out. “There’s a historic opportunity to create a noncommercial sector in the media in the United States,” Coronel says:

But my experience, after having undergone a somewhat similar transition, from controlled to free media after the fall of a dictatorship, is that the window is narrow. We need to grab the moment now, because if the old order begins to reassert itself, it will be a long time before such a moment comes again.

August 26,2009

Letters

What Future for the News?—An Exchange November 5, 2009

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