Nothing about a physical newspaper inherently makes it better suited for doing great reporting. Print and online are just mediums, and as consumption patterns shift towards online, we should see more of this in the future.
As Yang notes, it’s unclear whether blogs that aren’t affiliated with a newspaper would be eligible to win the prize under the current Pulitzer rules. But putting that issue aside, Yang is right — there’s nothing stopping a blog from producing top-notch journalism. All it has to do is generate enough money to produce top-notch journalism. And there’s the rub.
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It cost at least $100,000 for Sheri Fink’s prize-winning story about the life-and-death decisions at an isolated hospital in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Zachary M. Seward at Nieman Journalism Lab got the cost breakdown:
Fink was paid $33,000 plus $10,000 in expenses for her Kaiser fellowship, according to Steve Engelberg, her editor at ProPublica, where she’s been for 14 months. Engelberg, who was kind enough to go through these figures with me, said, “Fourteen months of salary plus benefits for us easily gets you north of 100 plus, 100, 150 or something.” He threw in another $20,000 to $30,000 for travel expenses, in addition to three months of editing and lawyering at ProPublica and the Times, which also spent $25,000 to $30,000 on photographs, he said.
Those sky-high expenses are simply out of reach for the majority of bloggers who care passionately about their niche, but who blog on a part-time basis, and often for little or no money. That doesn’t mean they can’t produce an interesting, valuable blog. But it does make it exceedingly difficult to devote the time and effort it takes to interview sources, unearth hard-to-find records, overcome legal hurdles, and tell compelling stories. That takes time — and money.
Let’s say you care about local politics and you blog about your local city council. If you’re like most people, you’re blogging as a hobby and you have a full-time job. Right out of the gate, you’re at a disadvantage because you don’t have the luxury of attending the weekly city council meetings that usually last all day. Not to mention the countless subcommittees that meet every week. And you can’t capitalize on all the time spent hanging out at City Hall, where you meet sources, learn new things, get story ideas and tips, and start really understanding what makes City Hall tick.
Newspapers have traditionally paid the most money in their communities for reporters to pay attention to what’s happening at City Hall. And the police department. And the local utility. And so on. That’s why the slow demise of newspapers worries people like Clay Shirky, who argues it could take a very, very long time until anyone figures out how to consistently produce the kind of expensive, accountability journalism that newspapers funded but are cutting back:
Now this doesn’t mean that all newspapers go away. It does mean that a lot of them go away. … Which leaves us with a giant hole, and a very threatening one. And in the nightmare scenario that I’ve kind of been spinning at for the last couple years has been: Every town in this country of 500,000 or less just sinks into casual, endemic, civic corruption — that without somebody going down to the city council again today, just in case, that those places will simply revert to self-dealing. Not of epic, catastrophic sorts, but the sort that just takes five percent off the top. Newspapers have been our principal bulwark for that, and as they’re shrinking, that I think is where the threat is.
This YouTube video features Shirky’s entire talk — it’s worth a listen.
Shirky isn’t arguing that we need to save newspapers to preserve journalism — we just need to preserve journalism. And there’s the rub.