Wyatt Emmerich: Non-profit journalism


Wyatt Emmerich



I received a nice letter from Donna Barksdale asking me to contribute to a new online Mississippi news service called Mississippi Today. 


I went to their Web site and saw several Mississippi journalism colleagues including Patsy Brumfield and Adam Ganucheau. The stories were well written but the content seems to be a duplication of what I already read in the Clarion-Ledger and from the Associated Press. 


Their Web site states: Mississippi News and Information Corporation, operating as Mississippi Today, is a nonpartisan, nonprofit digital news and information resource that aggressively and objectively covers state and local government affairs and community issues, including education, health, economic development, poverty and race, as well as Mississippi's social culture. 


The staff will produce high-quality reporting to act as a government watchdog, support the functioning democracy and help shape the future of the state. Increasing citizen awareness, including how government action affects people and communities, may lead to greater civic engagement. 


Mississippi Today will help create the next generation of distinguished journalists who reflect the state's diversity by recruiting exceptional graduates of journalism, communications and public policy educational institutions and working with current students at the state's colleges and universities to develop skills that will prepare them for productive careers. 


The donors are a laundry list of affluent Mississippi individuals and corporations including Butler Snow, Haley Barbour, Fred Carl, Jimmy Creekmore, John Palmer, Dickie Scruggs, William Winter, Joe Sanderson, the Ford Foundation and many others. 


Founder Andrew Lack is chairman of NBC News and MSNBC. He said, "I love Mississippi. I'm a grandson of Mississippi. Mississippi gave me all the opportunities I had in journalism that my grandfather, who was born and raised here, gave to my mom, who was his only child, and passed on to me." 


The organization has a three-pronged fund-raising strategy: encourage memberships, stage sponsored events, and increase contributions from donors and corporate sponsors. So far, they've raised $200,000 and have a staff of 11. 


"Whether it's $5 a month, or a $5,000 grant, we want there to be a place for that," said Melissa Hederman, chief development officer. 


Lord knows we need more journalists in Mississippi and the country. Since the rise of social media, the country has lost half its professional journalists. This is not a good thing for the country. Ultimately, citizens will pay a high cost in unreported corruption. 


But it's hard for me to envision a nonprofit model is the answer. For decades, traditional media outlets have struggled to resist editorial pressure from advertisers. This pressure will be far more intense from direct contributors. The result will be bland caution that does little to move the needle. At least advertisers get something in return for their money. 


Many newspapers have been purchased by wealthy individuals. This too is unhealthy. There is huge potential for abuse. 


For instance, the Washington Post is now owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Amazon is intensely trying to stop sales taxes for Internet purchases. What a great weapon to lobby Congress. It sends a chill down my spine. 


James Barksdale is an immensely successful investor who has done great good for Mississippi. That being said, he is actively involved in business investments that sometimes depend on special tax breaks from the state government. What is the likelihood that this new Web site will report on these matters? 


As our new Republican leaders champion "public-private partnerships," it's getting harder to separate the interests of government from the interests of the elite business class. A news source dependent on the largesse of our wealthiest citizens is ridden with conflict. 


As far as I know, no Mississippi newspaper has ever received or accepted a direct cash contribution. I seriously doubt any newspaper would accept one, given the grave ethical conflicts such a cash payment would pose. 


So what is to be done? Let's hope the proliferation of social media, blogs and instant communication allows us to do more with less original content. In addition, blogs allow individuals to self-report in a way that adds crucial information, even though often riddled with inaccuracies. As citizens we will have to do more self editing. 


Unlike the big newspapers, smaller newspapers and niche publications are still vibrant businesses. These publications will have to carry more weight. 


The Sun, for instance, just saved the citizens of Jackson hundreds of thousands of dollars by exposing bidding shenanigans regarding the city's sludge removal contract. Although the Sun did the original reporting, the Clarion-Ledger later jumped on board. 


This is just one story. Over the years, the Sun's reporting has saved taxpayers far more money than the cost of a subscription. All we ask is that you keep subscribing and pay your bill. We ask advertisers to remember our valuable community service when deciding which advertising medium to support.



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