Setting a New Standard for radical journalism

IssueJuly / August 2011
Feature by Brian Dominick

In mid-2003, the US military was ploughing steadily into Iraq, goaded on by a pro-war corporate media. Stateside, the federal government was ravaging civil rights in the name of national security, as reporters did their best to scare the population into complacency. And in the background, the economy was eroding the quality of life for families and communities across the country while wealthy elites accrued unprecedented fortunes and the daily headlines heralded a “recovery.” The failure of corporate news outlets to serve the public interest seemed as obvious as ever, and the US lacked reliable, non-ideological alternatives.

Jessica Azulay and I heard what we thought was a cry for a better, more responsible, media, especially from activists engaged in social movements whose messages were stifled in the mainstream. Our answer was The NewStandard (TNS), a traditionally-styled hard-news publication with some new, radical twists.

The NewStandard was more than a news outlet; it embodied the founders’ most basic hopes for a better society: one in which journalists would focus on the truly relevant and important, in which the voices and experiences of those most affected by events were heard and validated, in which workplaces resist oppressive hierarchies and become vehicles for personal and collective empowerment.

At first, almost no one we approached was willing to financially support this ambitious project. Eventually, we convinced a single donor to give us $10,000 to start up with – well short of the $100,000 our business plan called for. We stretched that seed money long enough to launch the publication and gather several thousand more from supporters of Z Communications, one of the few outfits that consistently extended solidarity to TNS.

Between 1 January 2004 and 27 April 2007, TNS published about 3,000 original news items. TNS’s journalism process was governed by an original, progressive style guide and reporter’s manual, which prescribed a thorough news gathering method and an interactive, notoriously stringent editorial regime.

Relying on a large base of stringers and freelancers, collective members were able to assign stories and accept proposals from a diverse group of eager journalists all over the US and international hotspots. Areas of special coverage included civil liberties, the environment, labour and economy, and the Middle East.

TNS produced some of the most exceptional journalism coming out of Iraq and post-Katrina New Orleans, and its coverage of marginalised issues and communities such as poverty, Native Americans, labour, disability rights, youth, and other categories was arguably unsurpassed in the corporate or alternative sectors.

Several characteristics made our undertaking unique. The NewStandard:

  • operated as a true participatory economics collective, each worker remunerated equally and having a complex of tasks balanced for empowerment and desirability (see Jessica Azulay’s essay on workplace structure for details);
  • was almost entirely women-run, with a very high proportion of people of colour contributing or on the staff;
  • was fully nonprofit and tax-exempt;
  • depended exclusively on its audience for funding, accepting no foundation money, government grants, underwriting, or advertising – ever;
  • eschewed the typical nonprofit practice of wasting funds on luxuries intended to impress wealthy donors;
  • had a system in place for making sure donors could not influence content;
  • paid competitively for every single original item of content published, and paid “kill fees” for articles that could not be published;
  • regularly turned down stories that might have increased visibility but were not deemed newsworthy per se;
  • published hard news, rather than commentary;
  • fact-checked every major claim or assertion published – including those in quoted matter;
  • prominently displayed factual corrections, rather than burying them;
  • adhered to rigorous sourcing guidelines that permitted anonymity only rarely.

One of the most exceptional aspects of TNS was its extraordinary record for turning readers into donors. In fact, excluding those who contributed more than $1,000 a year, the average periodic contribution was $14.72 per month, amounting to $176.66 per year for every small donor. As many as one in six of our regular readers became donors, which meant we raised about $46 per daily reader per year – a truly staggering figure for any website. Those who knew our work tended to love and value it.

Our main, if not sole, problem was that virtually nobody knew our website existed. We had no promotions budget, and we never became a viral craze. With few exceptions, blogs and news aggregators neglected TNS’s content, favouring mainstream corporate outlets.

But perhaps more importantly, the base of progressives and activists we relied on were seemingly not interested in actually reading truly independent hard news. They preferred commentary and punditry that reinforced their opinions, rather than thoroughly-researched reporting on which to help form or adapt their views.

The NewStandard was what everyone said was needed, but not what most people actually wanted. The lessons we learned over the nearly four years of building and publishing TNS amount to a mix of the inspiring and the downright depressing. Our goal was to compete head-to-head with mainstream news outlets, showing that a collectively-structured nonprofit, noncommercial alternative could do their job better. In the end, we were not able to demonstrate the viability of such an endeavour. It is extremely difficult, but probably not impossible, for a news organisation to operate truly independently of influential funding sources. We sincerely hope that others will draw lessons from the groundbreaking work we did on this project, incorporating relevant elements into their own media work.

Topics: Media