9/100 Things: Where the market fails, nonprofits step in

Journalism — The third sector will step in once again where the market has failed. In collaboration with The Atlantic Philanthropies and other donors, the Huffington Post announced Sunday “that it will launch The Huffington Post Investigative Fund with an initial budget of $1.75 million. That should be enough for 10 staff journalists who will primarily coordinate stories with freelancers…

While 10 journalist covering the US are a drop in the bucket, it’s a start. I can’t imagine life without a robust news media. Our community has been grieving the slow demolishing of what used to be a very good local newspaper, The Providence Journal, since it was bought out by the Belo Corporation in 1996.

Last week I listened to Tom Ashbrook of WBUR’s On Point interview Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good For You (a good read), about a talk he gave at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival suggesting the rise of a new “news ecosystem.” In this vision, “hyperlocal” journalists would provide indepth coverage of local news from your neighborhood to the school board. The old  newspaper would become a valued aggregator of trustworthy online sources.

While Johnson suggested that some traditional staff journalists and even print papers would remain, I had to wonder in this gurgling stew who would provide the legal protections for journalists. I don’t know about your state, but here in Rhode Island we’ve seen many “SLAPP” lawsuits filed against ordinary citizens who spoke out against vested business or political interests. SLAPP suits are Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation and are designed to intimidate critics and shut them up.

My guess is that when the first hyperlocal blogger in your town is hit with one of these suits , insightful local journalism will quickly disappear. Without the legal budget of a large journalism organization standing behind the reporter, that local blogger becomes an easy target. Even more so because there are no issues better than really local issues for bringing out the worst behavior in people.

While most victims of SLAPP suits may ultimately win in court, not many can afford the legal fees it takes to win a case. Luckily the ACLU (another nonprofit) has been pretty rigorous in defending SLAPP victims and many states offer some legal protections, but it doesn’t take many lawsuits to quickly chill dissent.

I’ve been suggesting to all who care about journalism that the nonprofit sector absolutely has to step in, whether that is creating nonprofit newspapers or setting up foundations at the local, state and national level to hire journalists directly. All those journalists now loosing their jobs might want to consider joining together to build bequest-generated foundations to sustain quality news reporting in perpetuity.

So welcome Huffington Post Investigative Fund. May you multiply a thousand times.

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