Rethinking what is possible in a “news” organization

150 150 Chris Nelson

I went to journalism school starting in the fall of 2007 at USC. There was still plenty of old-hat print romanticism left in the Annenberg sales pitch to prospective students. Many of my peers still dreamt of starting out at a small daily in the boondocks somewhere and working their way up to Associated Press White House correspondent. 

Later on in my tenure at Annenberg, I would listen with awe as Richard E. Meyer, editor of a Pulizter Prize winning piece and a runner up as a writer for the L.A. Times (and also a good friend now), would tell me about being the first on location for a big story. The first thing he did after landing was walk to each pay phone in the area and remove the piece that allowed voice transmission so he was the only one able to phone in the story to his editor when it broke.

Sadly, war stores like these have gone the way of the dodo and clear Pepsi.

The warning signs were materializing as I made my way through j-school. The LA Times was contracting under the businessman vice-grip of Sam Zell as The Huffington Post raked in 30,000,000 hits per month and launched its own citizen journalism initiative (“Off The Bus”) to cover the 2008 election.

Fast forward to 2012. It sems like half the people I went to school with a mere four years ago are now graduating from law school, having thrown their arms up at the prospect of getting a job in journalism. Nestled alongside Pulitzer winner mainstays such as the AP and The New York Times this year was The Huffington Post and POLITICO.

Indeed, times are changing, and changing quickly. Most people get news from their friends on Facebook sharing links as opposed to actually visiting a site on their own.

Mashable ran a piece yesterday breaking down the growing intersection between social media and news:

More than ever, people are using Twitter, Facebook and other social media sources to learn about what’s happening in the world as traditional news outlets become increasingly less relevant to the digital generation.

American forces’ raid on Osama Bin Laden, Whitney Houston‘s death, the Hudson River plane landing — these are just a few of many major news stories ordinary citizens broke on Twitter first. Professional journalists, meanwhile, use Twitter all the time to break news quickly before writing up full articles.

And the business side is going digital too. Online news now generates more revenue than print newspapers.

The phoenix that is rising from the ashes of the journalism that used to be is something wholly different with a huge gamut of new stakeholders and gatekeepers. Just as the music industry saw the swath of label-based middlemen vanish into thin air with the advent of podcasts and personal digitial distribution, so too did YouTube and the many avenue for online publishing of content shatter the barrier to entry for anyone looking to share “news.”

I was recently on the CAFwd Radio Show (full interview below) and got the chance to discuss California Forward’s role as one of these new stakeholders. Just as non-profit based outlet such as ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting have made waves with millions in initial funding for their new model of journalism, we as a non-profit have a similar opportunity to contribute to the world of news.

As a non-profit organization, we are not bound to ratings or concerned with generating ad revenue. Of course, we have policy areas that we choose to focus on, but these have been defined by years of careful research and polling to determine what Californians are most concerned about and in need of.

When you add in a former KTLA reporter, two Annenberg graduates with skillsets ranging from writing a print lede to shooting and editing video to producing a web page, and a radio-savvy communications manager armed with all of the gear and software needed to produce audio, video and written content, you have the nucleus for a full-fledged newsroom that couldn’t possibly have existed a mere five years ago.

Give this organization nine thriving Facebook pages corresponding to different slices of California, a robust Twitter account, a Soundcloud page, a YouTube channel, several blogging platforms, an email list in the tens of thousands and a network of employees across the state…and you have the platform to deliver our content in an unprecedented fashion through the avenues people look to most for news today. It’s a network many local news outlets would envy.

However, we don’t see this as an opportunity supplant any existing organization. The Associated Press and The New York Times will continue to do their thing. The major cable networks will continue to duke it out along the poles of the political spectrum. Local outlets will cover all of the local nitty gritty and the SacBee and the LA Times will continue to provide statewide coverage as best as they can.

California Forward will attempt to supplement those sources by attacking stories that other organizations simply do not have the time, budget or wherewithal to cover. 

We can choose to deep dive and explore the nuance of prison realignment in a way no one else would just as we can produce a commemorative LA Riots package alongside every other major LA-based news outlet. We are already forging new territory in our sponsorship of the California Economic Summit, generating original content almost daily and digging deep into what makes Califiornia’s vast network of regional economies tick.

Once the statewide summit comes to a close on May 11 in Santa Clara, we as an organization will turn our focus back to the broader set of issues Californians face. We believe there is a genuine void to be filled and as long as the citiznes of our great state have a vested interest in staying informed and getting their state back on track, there will be a home for the work that we do.

Chris Nelson is the blog editor and a social media & content specialist at California Forward


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