The Tribune and the Sun-Times shrink before our eyes, laying off reporters by the dozens. The Tribune files for bankruptcy. Who will watch the city if these eyes blink shut?
Can the Web really take up the slack? Someone in Vancouver asked himself that question five years ago and decided to find out. David Beers didn’t invent the business model for the Tyee—a mix of investments, grants, public contributions, and ad sales—and it’s not unique. What might be is the role in its inception played by public indignation—people in Vancouver wanted better than the mainstream media were giving them and they were ready to support someone who offered to supply it.
I’m wondering when such an eruption will take place in Chicago. The most passion I detect comes from sneering ex-readers on media boards listing the papers’ sins and shrieking good riddance.
Until he left it in 2001, Beers was both a columnist and the features editor of the daily Vancouver Sun, which he describes as British Columbia’s “newspaper of record,” the paper with the money and space to meticulously cover the region—or pretend to. The Sun was, and is, owned by a massive conglomerate, and Beers calls it stiflingly conservative. “Canwest owned the three newspapers of record in southern British Columbia, plus the far and away largest TV news station,” says Beers. “It owned the largest Internet portal and most of the community weeklies. And Canwest overreached. It insisted that its papers run editorials released by headquarters in Winnipeg or the publishers would be fired. People were aware of the cost to society of this. So the people were polarized, and there was a pent-up hunger for this.”
Beers explains, “What we did was sort of unpacked what the newspaper of record has been.” It’s been the sum of many parts, among them entertainment listings, lifestyle columns, and service pieces. “And all that coexists with the serious discussions about holding power accountable, helping civil society work through its next steps.” To Beers, this was the part that really mattered, and he saw shrinking newspapers throwing it over the side.
To some readers those discussions are an “altruistic luxury” anyway, he says, but for others they’re a paper’s “lifeblood.” Politicians, bureaucrats, academics, intellectuals, activists, nongovernmental organizations—all require a zone where decisions are reported and ideas exchanged. “They need this,” says Beers, “and they’re freaking out because this space is disappearing before their eyes.”
So he asked himself, “How do we maintain a place in the media where investigative work can be done, power held accountable, and a wide range of solutions discussed?” Beers rounded up $190,000 from the British Columbia Federation of Labor and a labor-affiliated venture capital fund—labor, he says, “just wanted a place where their ideas were taken seriously”—and in November 2003 he launched the Tyee (thetyee.ca). The word is Chinook for “someone of substance,” and locally, he says, it also means a 30-pound king salmon, “a feisty, wild, amazing fish.”
From the beginning, the Tyee had a local audience. One reason Vancouver paid attention, Beers says, is that he was already a big-shot journalist there, which meant stories were written about him and he showed up a lot on the radio. “The turning point was the provincial elections in 2005. We redesigned our site and broke a bunch of stories. We rolled out a blog, Election Central, and everybody read it. So we leveraged this tiny position to become one of the must-reads during the election for all the influentials. Leveraging is knowing your niche and getting certain people to read you and pick up your story. We wrote the biggest story—a donation scandal by the sitting Liberal government. By the end of it the leading political columnist in British Columbia was calling for an investigation.”
The Tyee operates on about $600,000 a year. “We have an ad salesperson who brings in 20 percent of our budget,” Beers says. “We’re structured as a for-profit, but we don’t make any money and we’re not designed to make money.” The Tyee has twice asked its readers to contribute to the Tyee Fellowship Fund, a not-for-profit Beers established to pay for in-depth reporting in two general areas he calls “Let’s get the bastards” and “Let’s dream up a better way to solve our problems.” Reporters and other researchers submit their ideas to a panel of journalism professors, who choose the projects, which are underwritten with $5,000 apiece from the fund. The first fund drive raised about $20,000 and paid for four projects. The second drive—launched after readers had seen the results of the first—raised about $30,000 and paid for five.
“The way we can expand,” says Beers, “is to develop partnerships with philanthropists and private donors who want to see journalism done about certain subjects. For example, if someone’s highly concerned about global warming and wants reporting on the Western Climate Initiative, that person could make a grant to the Tyee knowing we have audience credibility and standard journalistic practices already. They make the grant and we add somebody for a while who has that beat.” Beers concedes that what he’s talking about “raises a question about editorial independence” but tells himself the old mass-media model was full of compromises too.
Down the coast in Seattle, there’s a similar but by no means identical Web site called Crosscut. David Brewster, founder and former publisher of the Seattle Weekly, one of the country’s first alternative weeklies, started it last year as a commercial business, but now he’s shifting to a nonprofit status to add two new revenue streams—memberships and grants. “There’s definitely a slowing down of the growth of online advertising,” he says.
Besides, says Brewster, “I like the notion of community-directed, community-owned media as a way at the local level to reestablish the kind of trust and we’re-in-this-together feeling between readers and the producers of journalism. The Web seems very well suited for that, maybe even better suited than radio.”
Like the Tyee, Crosscut posts about five new stories a day, taps the growing local pool of out-of-work reporters by offering what Brewster calls “decent” pay for their work, and has worked out a rationale for why public money is no more compromising than private money. Unlike the Tyee, Crosscut aggregates aggressively. “We spend a lot of time on that,” Brewster says. “We’re source-agnostic. If we have a story and there’s another story in another paper that’s good we’ll definitely link to it. I like to do a lot of stuff about other cities.”
The Tyee does much less aggregating, says Brewster, because breadth of reporting is not what it’s about. “They’re a kind of perspective on the news. Tyee is more ideologically defined than Crosscut. They position themselves as the voice of the left and the voice of the green up against a culture, certainly a media culture, that is old economy and conservative. Secondly, they try to find certain topic areas and flood the zone. Homelessness is one area they do a particularly good job in. Affordability is another. David Beers has this notion that good reporting is when everybody in that area has to read you.”
“When I look at David Brewster’s model,” says Beers, who’s talking with Brewster about collaborating on regional stories that would run on both sites, “he went with a more bland presentation, a more neutral tone, and did it in a less polarized political environment. In the long run he might do better than us, as a sort of Internet public radio. Whereas we’re seen—we advertise ourselves—as feisty.”
Beers heads a staff of full-timers, part-timers, and interns so slender the webmaster doubles as copy editor. He’s got a “legislative editor” in Victoria, the provincial capital, and an “investigative editor” whose focus is homelessness, which is a major local embarrassment in a city sensitized to it by the approaching 2010 Olympics. That’s it for a full-time editorial staff. He pays them each $40,000 to $50,000—and gives them “European-style vacations,” he adds.
Everyone else is a part-timer, an intern, or a freelancer. He pays the freelancers between $150 and $400 for stories.
The Tyee had been in business a year when Vancouver’s leading alt-weekly, the Georgia Straight, called it the “best local on-line news source” and said “in just over a year of on-line production, the Tyee has become an essential news supplement.”
The problem is that journalism today doesn’t need news supplements half as much as it needs a new model of primary news purveyor. The Tyee is a long way from being that.
“We are a very small organization,” Beers concedes. “The big evolutionary hurdle is the one between one or two people fiddling around with some cheap, ubiquitous software and the next step—producing credibly sourced, professional journalism and attracting some audience. You can do it with few people and a small budget, but you’ll remain in some kind of political newsletter zone. Moving from quixotic start-up to serious organization—that’s not easy.”
No, but evolution has no time to waste.v
Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner’s blog, News Bites.