A debate has been ignited over the issue of journalism grants and funding.
At the same time that The L.A Times and The Washington Post have received financial support from the Ford Foundation ($1 million and $500,000 respectively), the independently run journalism start-up Homicide Watch was forced to raise funds via a Kickstarter campaign.
The assistance offered to established, for-profit news organisations and the neglect of pioneering journalism projects has raised questions about the kind of support innovative entrepreneurs can expect from institutions interested in protecting the future of quality reporting.
Founded and edited by former crime reporter Laura Amico, Homicide Watch provides in-depth information and reporting on murders committed in the Washington D.C area. With the help of a database designed by Amico’s husband Chris, for the past two years the site has sought to abide by its promise to “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.” In doing so, Homicide Watch has attracted a large following in the D.C community and beyond: since its debut in 2010 visits to the site have escalated, rising from 500 a month to reach 300,000 in July of this year.
Amico’s style of what Poynter terms “beat-coverage-as-database-building” was widely hailed as an exemplary model for digital journalism. Glowing coverage from respected news outlets, including this piece by the Washington Post describing Amico as “the District's most comprehensive chronicler of the unlawful taking of human life”, led to speculation that a local news outlet would soon purchase the site.
No deal was forthcoming however, and Homicide Watch has run into difficulties in the past few months after Amico was awarded a Nieman-Berkman Fellowship. The position will allow both her and her husband to study sustainable models for crime journalism at Harvard - but would make the day-to-day running of the Homicide Watch site virtually impossible.
Without its creator and sole contributor, the site’s future was put in doubt. The Amicos decided to seek financial backing for a Homicide Watch reporting lab, that would train journalism students to cover murders in D.C over the next year. Having been turned down for funding by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, J-Lab’s New Media Women Entrepreneurs and rejected three times by the Knight News Challenge, the two eventually turned to Kickstarter to raise enough money to employ five interns.
As the SFN blog has discussed previously, journalism projects seeking donations from the crowd-funding site is nothing unusual. What has raised eyebrows amongst reporters like The New York Times’ David Carr, is that established news publishers are often benefitting from funding schemes that could arguably be better used to save innovative journalism projects. In an article published this weekend on the NYTimes website, Carr asks: ‘Shouldn’t financing meant for journalistic innovation go to the green shoots like Homicide Watch and not be used to fertilize giant dead-tree media?’
The LA Times’ Ford grant is intended to allow the title to employ more journalists to report on ethnic and prison issues and the Foundation’s donation to the Washington Post will increase coverage of government accountability. Whilst supporting any action that increases the number of journalists at news organisations, Carr suggests that “the existential dilemma confronting media will require new answers, not stop-gap funds for legacy approaches.”
Of course, nobody wants to see respected legacy titles disappear, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the scale on which some are operating is largely unsustainable. There is definitely an argument to be made for shoring up the finances of these papers in light of the valuable public service titles such as the LAT and the Washington Post serve, but it is a pity that might happen to the detriment of smaller ventures, at a time when the amount of funding available is shrinking and the number of not-for-profit journalism ventures is growing. After all, Homicide Watch almost disappeared from the scene despite its valuable work in covering the types of crimes usually glossed over by Washington’s newspapers.
Moreover, Alan D. Mutter has revealed that the Tribune Co., LAT’s parent company, has accumulated $2.4 billion in cash despite being in its third year of bankruptcy proceedings, raising further questions as to the title’s suitability for a grant.
Fortunately for the Amicos, the community their work serves and the young journalists who will receive a considerable amount of training thanks to Homicide Watch’s new reporting lab, the website comfortably reached its Kickstarter goal of $40,000.
It’s a clash between old and new that will see funders torn between encouraging journalistic innovation and development and preserving heritage brands.