Thursday, November 18, 2010

Donation journalism faces tough times as Washington Independent and New Mexico Independent shut down

Yesterday the Washington Independent and the New Mexico Independent both announced they were shutting down. The New Mexico Independent website immediately began posting stories from other sources, while the Washington Independent site showed its sad announcement. It, too, will begin mirroring content from other American Independent News Network sites soon.
For a newspaper and magazine publisher like myself, the idea behind the business model of the American Independent News Network is not attractive to me -- I suppose I've never seen this business as charity work. But I suppose I would say that I'm open to any model that can produce results. The one thing that I am adement about is measuring results and adjusting to what those result have to tell us. (Sadly, I know too many media executives who would rather continuing make the same mistakes over and over again in an arrogant demonstration that they are right, no matter what the numbers say.)

Sadly, the results of this type of business model continue to be poor. These efforts remind me in some ways of the old Players League, a baseball league founded by the stars of the sport late in the 19th century. The league had all the star power you would want, but managed to last just one year -- 1890 (the Boston Reds won, by the way). The owners of the existing National League no doubt were pretty sure the players couldn't make it on their own without the owners.

In my view, successful media ventures require an often delicate balance between financial backing, revenue generation, and "the talent" (in the case of news, we are talking about journalists). This three legged stool, you will see, requires that two of the legs involve $$, and all three legs have to be of equal length. In other words, you can't start with journalists and add revenue people as needed -- it's all one business.

I remember a conversation I had with one of my editors a few years back. The company had just opened a new office and we have just moved in. That very first day I said something along the lines of "this place scares me". My editor looked puzzled and asked why. "Look at all these people here, how many of them bring in money." The answer, of course, was zero -- and that was scary.