Is This The New Model For Local Journalism?

Posted on February 11, 2010. Filed under: Commentary, Trends | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Tom Ferrick Jr., a former columnist and reporter covering government and politics for The Philadelphia Inquirer, believes the continuing demise of in-depth news coverage signals the loss of a check in our national system of checks and balances.

After all, he asserts, democracy is a form of government that relies on an informed citizenry.

So what happens if our sources of investigative news coverage die out?

It’s a scenario he’d rather not live to see.

Tom recently launched a website called Metropolis, with in-depth news, analysis and commentary for the Philadelphia region.

I’m a former journalist and the concept of Metropolis piqued my interest. So I gave Tom a ring and we chatted about his new venture. Here are highlights from our conversation.

Interview with Tom Ferrick, Senior Editor for the website, Metropolis:

What’s the impetus for Metropolis?

Tom: You’re seeing the decline in traditional media. Journalism is still sound but the economic model is failing. And my argument is we’re still fine with breaking news — TV and the newspapers do a good job with breaking news. But it’s the other stuff they used to do — the analysis, the investigations — those kinds of things that are broader. The real hard work. That stuff is diminishing and we sort of end up with this news and information gap.

Locally and regionally, it’s declined, …  so my argument is we’ve got to find a way to fill that void and that’s what this is designed do.

Do you have a content strategy?

Tom: The content is very much local, or regional. It’s a combination of commentary, good analysis, in-depth stories and investigations. That’s the portfolio.

Right now, if you look at the site it has four main components. There’s a main story, a commentary called Publius, which is about politics and government and commentary and analysis of that. VoxPop, which is more personal essays and reflections — people’s voices that reflect life in Philadelphia today. And then I have New and Recommended that points people to other interesting articles. I’d like to expand that over time.

And you picked those four main areas because they are personal interests?

Tom: I spent my whole life covering politics. I played on my strengths. I would not put up a sports site — let’s put it that way. It’s not where I’m at.

How are you getting contributors?

Tom: I advertised on Craig’s’ List and that was mostly for the VoxPop personal essays. I’m getting some of the political commentary that comes over the transom, and rest is people in the business I’ve known for years whom I’ve recruited to write stories. I don’t pay much… $50 for the first article, $75 for the second, and $100 for the third… For the bigger pieces, I can’t pay these people what they’d normally get. But I’ll pay them 400 to 500 bucks. My feeling is free is the new model, but I think if you’re going to ask people to do professional quality work, you can’t ask them to that that for free… If it’s a professional writer, I think you should pay them. Even if it amounts to an honorarium.

Is it self-financed?

Tom: Yes, at this stage.

You’re not soliciting for ads?

Tom: Not yet. I think I have to have an audience before I start charging people [laughs]. It’s a radical idea.

So what’s the economic model?

Tom: My hope is, because this is a non-profit that I’ve established, called the Public Media Lab, there will be a foundation or wealthy individuals who see the value of it and want to see it expand and sustained, and will step forward to provide some funds to operate it.

Well there has been talk of non-profit foundations stepping in to save traditional journalism, as we now know it. Just as an idea; not that a foundation has said they’re going to do it.

Tom: Right. And I think the other side of that is, the economic model for making these kinds of sites go forward has not yet been found. It’s all a process of discovery. I don’t think it’s a good idea in the long run for foundations to pay for news operations. But I think it’s a good idea to provide the research and development money. The seed money.

What’s the case you make? Why should they support you?

Tom: The simple case is this: Good journalism is really important to a good democracy. You need it. It serves a public purpose in that sense. And if we’re sort of headed into the dark ages through the collapse of the big news institutions, you have to ask yourself, what is going to replace it, if anything?

So what do you see as the damage being done? What’s lost?

Tom: The information that citizens need to not only monitor the politicians who are supposed to serve them but can also help the neighborhoods they live in.

One could argue that people just don’t want to read that kind of thing and that’s why you see so little of it nowadays.

Tom: My argument is there is a market. I think this kind of stuff will find a niche.

Do you think what you’re doing can serve as a potential model that may be picked up in other cities?

Tom: I think there is a core of people who see value in what I call American style journalism — which is independent of political party, fact-based, verified. As opposed to a state-run paper or infotainment. And I think the people who practice that type of journalism are going to have to look for new venues to continue to practice that.

As the old ones fall you’re really emerging into an era of experimentation as to what new venues you can find. This is what I am trying to do. There’s a lot of this stuff going on like this around the country.

– Deni Kasrel

Do you think Tom is on the right track with his new venture, Metropolis? Do you think it’s a good model to help save the future of local hard-news journalism. Please share your thoughts. Comments welcome.

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