29 January 2009

Get the Governance Right, Then I'll Subscribe

Over at PJNet, Leonard Witt proposes that newspaper subscribers should offer to "buy" the newsroom, placing it in a cooperative trust owned by its readers. In the comments, he writes the following:

Which sounds like the better deal: Now at $4.50 with no say or $2 with ownership.

Here is the governance starting point: We want high quality, ethically sound journalism and we want the news told without fear or favor.
I like the cost with ownership versus the cost without ownership. Who can argue with that? But how does that gain subscribers? I'm not subscribing to any newspaper right now, so my equation is $0.00 with no ownership, which works for me from a cost/value perspective. [UPDATE: Apparently, I'm not the only one, "Stop the Presses? Many Americans Wouldn't Care a Lot if Local Papers Folded"]

I completely reject the governance starting point. Meaningless drivel. A mission statement based on journalism-by-bromide. I agree with Jay Rosen on this point:
Can you tell me about the kind of bias the mainstream press should have, in your considered view? Can you describe a recommended bias and how it operates?
No fair fudging your answers with lines like: "the press should have a bias toward accuracy, facts, truth, fairnesss, and the sweet light of reason." That tells us nothing.
How about an actual mission statement? Make clear what the most important things are to inform their readers about (i.e., schools, infrastructure, law enforcement, judiciary, legislature, executive, but no arts, lifestyle, sports, etc.).

Require "show your work" journalism by posting documents, interview notes, transcripts and audio online, and a URL with the printed story to the online version. Require moving to a Web2Print publishing process, if not already in place, and smart hyperlinks in the online version of the story to the reporter's references, as well as to the websites of the story's sources and subjects.

Zero-tolerance for anonymous quotes. A journalist in "our newsroom" can state that something has happened or is happening based on his own reputation without resorting to anonymous sourcing. Lie to us and we find out, you're fired. And we will find out. We're also online and we love to dig deeper and fact-check.

Each reporter working in "our newsroom" will have to report the number of stories submitted and the number of stories published, average time spent preparing each story, average word count per story, and the range & average Flesch-Kincaid index number for his/her stories. Also, accuracy counts. Corrections submitted by the newsroom owners get appended to the news story and published online. Owners grade (promote) the importance and validity of the corrections. Too many important factual errors, and you're on probation with an extra editor assigned to review your stories. No improvement over six months, you're gone. Lapse back within a year, you're gone.

Would any reporter agree to work in a newsroom "owned" by subscribers with such accountability requirements? Who knows? With the current economy and financial outlook for newspapers, maybe.

Is that the kind of data that I would want from a reporter working for me? You bet'cha!

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