As the most exciting presidential campaign of my lifetime comes to an end, the newspaper industry is in its worst slump ever. My FORTUNE colleague Richard Siklos has a great column about the industry’s woes at fortune.com, including this recap of recent headlines:
Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper company, plans to lay off 10%, or 3,000, of its newspaper staffers; the century-year-old Christian Science Monitor will cease publishing in print; the Newark Star-Ledger will cut its newsroom by 40%; the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register will proceed with their umpteenth rounds of layoffs.
Magazines aren’t immune. In the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Depression, business magazines (including FORTUNE) are cutting back. But things are far, far worse for newspapers, including their share prices. Again, quoting Richard:
McClatchy (MNI) is down 85%, Lee Enterprises (LEE) is down 82%, Gannett is down 76%, and the New York Times (NYT) is off 52% – and off nearly 80% over five years.
I don’t ordinarily wrote or blog about the news media (been there, done that) but last week, as all this dour news was unfolding, I found some reasons for optimism. I met over coffee with Keith Hammonds, who used to be a top-flight magazine writer for Fast Company and Business Week. Keith is now looking for ways to rescue and reinvent journalism through his work with Ashoka, a nonprofit group that supports social entrepreneurs. (Ashoka defines social entrepreneurs as “men and women with system changing solutions for the world’s most urgent social problems.”) Of course, the decline of print journalism isn’t as urgent a problem as, say, global poverty, climate change or AIDS but all those problems will, arguably, be harder to solve in the absence of a free, independent and vigorous press.
As Keith put it, when we talked about the cutbacks in the newsrooms of the Newark Star Ledger and the Trenton Times: “Who’s going to connect the people of New Jersey with their government in a meaningful way?” I recently saw a couple of issues of the newly slimmed-down Hartford Courant, a place where I worked for nine years, and a newspaper that once took great pride in its exhaustive (albeit often exhausting) coverage of state and local government; today’s version is a shadow of its former self.
So what is to be done? “If you believe that traditional media is in crisis,” Keith says. “there’s a tremendous opportunity to identify and support the entrepreneurs who are creating the new models and strategies for whatever it is that comes next.” That is the purpose of the program he now leads, which is called the Ashoka News and Knowledge Fellows. (It’s funded by the Knight Foundation, the creation of the late, lamented Knight-Ridder chain, another former employer of mine.)
“What are the new ideas, models and strategies that will better connect people to information?” asks Keith.
So far—he’s only been at Ashoka since January—Keith has identified nine fellows, who will get three-year grants, as well as advice from Ashoka and the chance to interact with one other. (One advisor to the group is Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia.) These new media pioneers are widely scattered, in the U.S., Germany, the Czech Republic, Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and Senegal. Most but not all are working in digital media.
One example: a website at www.newstrust.net led by an entrepreneur named Fabrice Florin. Its goal is to identify and promote high-quality journalism from all across the Internet, both from the mainstream and independent media, by turning to a community of thousands of news reviewers. “This is a way to establish credibility and connections with trustworthy sources,” Keith says.
Another: Ouestaf.com, which, as best as I can tell with my college French, offers a collection of news stories from independent sources across West Africa. Because there are far more mobile phone owners than computer owners in West Africa, the founder of this project, Tidiane Sy, hopes to develop a news services that would be available to cell phones.
Keith joined Ashoka after 25 years in traditional journalism, most recently at Fast Company. He’s got a Harvard MBA as well as experience with nonprofits; he co-founded a relief food distribution network in Namibia in the 1980s. He tells me he’s energized by his new gig.
“The last six years in the print world were very painful,” Keith says, “as we tried to figure out how to wrestle our old model into some new form that would allow us to be relevant to people, to be valuable, to connect readers to information. It was pretty grim.”
By contrast, the entrepreneurs that Ashoka is supporting are energetic and optimistic. “They are powerful personalities. They have ideas that click. They are smart. To talk to them is to reacquaint yourself with hope, and the sense of purpose that drove many of us journalists into the field in the first place.”