The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit community news website, is used to exemplify the innovation required for journalists to stay afloat in an industry fraught with layoffs and bankruptcies in a new book about journalism in the Internet age.
Dan Kennedy, assistant professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, tells the story of the Independent in “The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age,” a book that he will publish this May. Kennedy presents the New Haven Independent as a product of the “market failures” of the for-profit model of the New Haven Register, as well as the answer to an unfilled niche in New Haven community reporting.
“We’re in a period of continual reinvention,” Kennedy said. “This is an inspirational story of what can spring up when you have the market failure represented by the Journal Register Company’s bankruptcy.”
The Independent has performed relatively well within the burgeoning field of nonprofit journalism, boasting 20 percent growth every year since its inception in 2005 and now garnering over 300,000 unique visitors per month. Scott Leadingham, education director for the Society of Professional Journalists, said that while nonprofit news outlets have existed for decades under models like National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service, the business model has witnessed a resurgence in the last decade as the future of the for-profit journalism model has come under fire.
Independent creator and Editor-in-Chief Paul Bass ’82, who worked at for-profit media outlets for 34 years prior to forming the Independent, said he finds the medium of nonprofit journalism “freer” in that his staff can pursue stories suggested by online commentators to serve the public interest and act as the “watercooler for the city.”
“We need to cut down on the information apartheid,” Bass said. “If we are going to construct a paywall, we may as well not publish. We believe in community empowerment through journalism.”
But Leadingham said nonprofit outlets find difficulty competing with established commercial media enterprises. Instead, nonprofit and for-profit media outlets have engaged in a collaborative relationship, occupying different niches of the market for media consumption. While Matt DeRienzo, editor of the New Haven Register, said that Bass was previously unmentionable in the Register newsroom as a tough competitor, he added that Bass now engages in frequent conversations with Register staff about city news.
“We direct our readers towards him, and he does the same towards the Register,” DeRienzo said. “He makes our coverage better and I would love to see him succeed for years to come.”
Kennedy said his school introduces journalism students to digital skills such as social media and video reporting, although he emphasized that the school’s major focus is on developing journalistic skills divorced from technology.
“We don’t want them to get too hung up on any particular technology,” Kennedy added. “Any one technology we use today could easily pass from use. We want to make them lifelong learners when it comes to technology.”
Kennedy emphasized the importance of maintaining the traditional values and ethics of journalism while cultivating an “entrepreneurial spirit.” He added that it is still too early in the “post-newspaper and Internet age” to know what a successful journalism model will look like, but he hopes that his book — rather than prompting news organizations to follow the Independent’s model — encourages readers to take a more optimistic view of the future of journalism.
“What I hope comes from the book is some excitement instead of the gloom and doom that we’ve been hearing about the newspaper business,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy is a longtime media commentator, writing for The Huffington Post and serving as a regular panelist on “Beat the Press,” on WGBH-TV in Boston.
Correction: March 10
A previous version of this article misstated the number of unique visitors per month to the New Haven Independent’s website. The site garners 300,000 visitors per month, not 30,000.