Sunday, April 25, 2010

How Much Will YOU Pay This Man to Investigate Government Corruption?

By now it's all too clear: we're living through a monumental revolution in journalism. Newspapers are in big trouble. Ad revenues have plummeted so low that news organizations all across the nation are going out of business, or hovering on the brink of bankruptcy. The conventional wisdom is that the internet is the only thing that can save the news business. Newspapers were a little late in recognizing the threat --or the opportunity-- offered by the internet, but now they're all jumping on the on-line/blog bandwagon.

The thing we don't know yet though -- and it's a monster issue -- is whether newspapers and TV stations can actually make money gathering and disseminating news on the internet. And what about individual journalists working on-line? Can they make a decent living?

Even The New York Times is struggling to answer these life-or-death questions. At a journalism conference last year at SUNY Stony Brook, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. admitted to a good deal of confusion and uncertainty as he and his staff attempt to navigate the august grey lady through these dark and stormy waters.

Meanwhile, the job outlook for journalists is grim. It was always difficult to get a job in the competitive, cutthroat world of journalism, but these days, with newspapers disappearing, and layoffs happening in droves, it's hard to know what to say to up-and-coming students who ask whether they should aim for a journalism career. It might be a good idea to have a back-up plan is generally the advice I offer.

With all this in mind, one can only marvel at the guts --some would say chutzpah-- of newsman Jim Hummel, a 30-year veteran of the news business who is now trying to set himself up as an independent investigative reporter in Providence, Rhode Island. The story Jim has to tell, about how he's trying to "brand" himself, is one we should all know about, because it raises fundamental questions about the future of journalism, and even the present rather crazy condition of the news world.

Hummel's story -- which at one point features him performing with a professional dancer in order to raise his public profile-- also speaks in a very direct way to this mighty question: how much is a free press worth to us? You see, Jim is actually seeking money, as in PayPal contributions, to support his work investigating government corruption in Providence -- there's plenty to uncover by the way.

My question is this, would you reach into your pocket and write Jim a check?

Before you answer that question, there is a video you absolutely must watch.

The woman who produced it is journalist Sheila Conlin, a television producer working for the NBC News Channel in Washington, DC. Conlin is herself a 30-year news veteran, and a remarkably talented reporter. She was also one of my very best students in the graduate journalism program at Georgetown University (I was on sabbatical teaching there last spring.) Conlin has just completed producing the video about Hummel as part of the capstone project required for her master's degree.

I am delighted to bring you Conlin's piece, and to say that based on her video, I am going to write Jim Hummel a small check, to show that I think he is something of a modern hero. Up against great odds, he was willing to step away from a salaried job at a TV station in Providence, and try something risky: to make a living doing investigative reporting on his own. His plan for "monetization," i.e., how he intends to make a buck, is this: he wants donations from ordinary folks like us, AND he wants to find a corporation or two who think it's in their interests, and all of society's, to support government investigation. He's already got the backing of a conservative policy group called the Ocean State Policy Institute. But the question is can he find corporate money to support his work? And if he does, what happens if his investigations into government mischief land him in sticky territory unearthing malfeasance that touches on the behavior of corporations that sponsor him? What happens if in trying to correct government wrongdoing he makes it harder on business to operate in Rhode Island? Will the corporate support disappear?

These are important questions which cannot be answered here. Meanwhile, though, we have a noble experiment underway, and we have a newsman that we can all agree deserves our admiration. Conlin's journalism in producing the video also deserves admiration, and perhaps, even an award.

Without further ado, here is Conlin's fine piece of work, "Goodbye TV News, Hello Internet,"

and Jim Hummel's website.

I would encourage you to make a donation, even if it's just a few dollars. When a cup of coffee at Starbucks runs us almost four dollars, isn't worth ten, 20, 30 or more to support journalism that forms the cornerstone of our democracy?

To me it is. I hope you'll agree.

No comments: