Charity or Collaboration for the Times?

05/25/2011 01:40 pm ET
  • Jeff Jarvis Author, 'Public Parts' and 'What Would Google Do?'

The New York Times has accepted free stories from ProPublica. It has endorsed a journalist getting help from the public via Spot.US to underwrite a story that might appear at And Poynter's Bill Mitchell says the paper is even wondering about foundation support for its work (but for perspective, I suspect one could safely say the Times is wondering about any possible economic model of support).

All this is being viewed as charity: giving the Times gifts directly or indirectly to produce journalism in its pages, physical or digital.

I think that's looking at it -- and at the Times -- the wrong way. I prefer to think of it as a few of many possible forms of collaboration to create journalism that may or may not appear in the paper (and to which it may or may not link). I prefer to think of the paper as the organizer of networks of journalism.

Thinking that way, then when The Local, the hyperlocal blog at the Times, asked for a volunteer to cover a meeting it wasn't planning to cover, you could say that it was asking for a charitable act. I'd rather say the Times was opening up to collaboration.

And let's say that a local blogger covers the meeting and reports on it on her own blog and The Local takes advantage of that by aggregating, curating, quoting, and/or linking to that report. The net result is the same but that's not charity. It's cooperation.

Go one step farther: Say that the Times lends a video or sound recorder to that blogger so she can better report on the meeting and provide more coverage to her and The Local's readers. Is that support an act of charity to the blogger? No, it's collaboration. (By the way, this will be happening when CUNY provides equipment and training to members of the communities in The Local's footprint as part of a Carnegie Corporation grant we just received.)

When we define the Times solely as a commercial institution that produces and controls an asset -- the news -- then any provision of money or effort to it appears to be charity.

But when we define the news as the creation of a larger ecosystem and the Times as just one member of it, then help -- money, effort, equipment, training -- instead appears to be collaboration.

And once one looks at the ecosystem through the lens of collaboration, then many other things are possible: then the Times (or any other member) could organize many members to work together to produce journalism no one of them could do alone. Then we start to account for the value of the work of the entire news ecosystem not based solely on the size of the staff of the last newsroom standing in the community; we open up to volunteer and entrepreneurial effort that can expand the scope of journalism far, far past what that one newsroom could do.

So I say that the Times and other papers opening up to the work of others supported by others is not an act of begging and charity if it is one bit of evidence of opening up to collaboration.

Now having said all that, I'm aware of the issues that are raised by giving of any sort and Clark Hoyt's and Bill Mitchell's columns address many of them: the potential for influence from the donor leading the list. There can also be tax questions (only a gift to a 501c3 is a charitable deduction and when is value received by a for-profit company taxable income?). There are labor delicacies when volunteer take on the work formerly done by staffers (there's one of the reasons that professional journalists sneer at citizen journalism; it's not always about high standards but instead about self-interest).

Still, I say it's important to open up journalism and its institutions and players to many kinds of collaboration in a new ecosystem. That cooperation should extend to the commercial -- revenue -- side of the equation as well, as advertising and e-commerce networks enable each member of the ecosystem to gain more value together than they could alone. This is a key assumption of our work at the CUNY New Business Models for News Project.

One more caution: As we debate and explore the opportunities for charitable and volunteer support of journalism, it is important -- critical -- that we not declare surrender against the hope that journalism can be sustained in profitable enterprises. This is the keystone of our NewBizNews work at CUNY. We will estimate how much charitable support is possible in a market and what it can buy. We will also emphasize the importance of including volunteer effort in viewing the value of the ecosystem. But we also stipulate that none of that -- not foundations, not the goodwill work of bloggers and neighbors -- will support the level of reporting and journalism a community needs. And we believe that the market will support journalism -- even the growth of journalism -- commercially. We are working on models to examine how both the revenue and efficiency of enterprises in the ecosystem -- news organizations to bloggers -- can be optimized (we'll be putting out models as we get closer to our first August deadline).