National Press Club

The Future of Journalism: Corporate Sponsorship?

October 16, 2008 | By Gil Klein

ATLANTA – The future of journalism may be in niche products supported less by advertising and more by corporate sponsorships, by interest groups and by public broadcasting-style memberships, leading Georgia journalists said at a Club Centennial ForumTuesday.

While Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, described how her paper is pulling back its reporting to the core four counties in the metropolitan area, Susanna Capelouto, news director for Georgia Public Broadcasting, said her organization is expanding.

“The reason public broadcasting is doing so well is that they can specialize on the ‘why’ of journalism,” Capelouto said. “They make the connection, they tell the story, and they are supported by their members, so the pressure isn’t there.”

To keep up with the costs of doing public interest reporting, many news organizations will have to change their commercial model, Tucker said. A century ago, people could pick their newspapers according to their political beliefs or their demographics, and journalism may be returning to that model.

“A large part of what is now commercial journalism will have to be supported by foundations or organized more along the lines of public broadcasting,” Tucker said. “I don’t see any reason why newspapers can’t adopt a corporate sponsorship model much like public broadcasting.”

She said the News Hour on PBS has been supported by sponsorships for years. “I don’t see how their reporting of the news or their credibility has been hurt by that.”

Capelouto and Tucker were speaking at one of the National Press Club’s forums on “The First Amendment, Freedom of the Press and the Future of Journalism” the Club is holding around the country to mark its 100th anniversary. The Atlanta forum was co-sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club.

Tom Baxter, editor of the Internet-based Southern Political Report and senior vice president of its parent company, Insider Advantage, said the transition to new media is already well underway.

Baxter had been a political reporter and editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution for 30 years before making the transition to the online news company. Now, he said, when he goes to presidential debates and the national political conventions, he sees the online news surging while the older media seem to be receding.

“The next step is that (online media) might start making money,” he said. “None of us can predict which of these things are going to be profitable.”

But even without the competition from the Internet, major metropolitan papers would have declining revenues, he said.

“It would still be impossible,” he said, “for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to create a newspaper and throw it on the front lawn on one side of this metro area and throw it on the door step of the other side and still make any money.”

Newspapers are in trouble not only because classified advertising has shifted to the Internet, but also because large news organizations took on huge debt to expand during the last 20 years, said Kent Middleton, head of the University of Georgia’s journalism department. They had counted on fat revenue growth to pay back that debt, and it’s not there.

The Internet will serve more niche audiences who will pay for that news, he said, but what will be lost is the investigative reporting that major metropolitan newspapers do.

“The public will miss that the most,” he said. “The major metros were the only people in town that had the resources, the number of reporters, the financial strength, the institutional memory, the commitment of journalists and the publishers to do that work.”