In mid-2003, the US military was plowing steadily into Iraq, goaded on by a pro-war corporate media. At home, the US 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 of communities across the country while the daily headlines heralded a “recovery.” The failure of corporate news outlets to serve the public interest seemed as obvious as ever – particularly to the growing number of Americans disillusioned with the media yet frustrated by the lack of a clear and reliable alternative.
As activists, writers and media consumers, we heard the cry for a better, more responsible media. Our answer was The NewStandard, a traditional-style hard-news publication with a new, progressive twist. It was more than a news outlet; it embodied our 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 are heard and validated, in which workplaces resist oppressive hierarchies and become vehicles for personal and collective empowerment.
The NewStandard published its last articles on April 27, 2007. The lessons we learned over the nearly four years of building and publishing The NewStandard amount to a mix of the inspiring and the downright depressing. Here we encourage people to take our attempt as both an inspiration in some ways and a hard lesson on the realities of today’s media.
The most surprising lesson of TNS (at least to us) is that as much as people complain about the corporate media and acknowledge the need for an alternative, most were not actually interested in reading or promoting our kind of journalism.
Even after three years of publication and numerous attempts to garner attention, we still only had a few thousand visitors coming to our website each day. This – not financial problems per se – was the main factor in our decision to shutter TNS.
Considering our tiny readership, TNS was wildly successful at raising money. In 2006, we raised about $185,000 solely from our readership. But even though this budget supported a staff of six as well as numerous freelancers, the cost of publishing a full-fledged, daily news website like ours is much higher. From the very beginning, TNS staff members subsidized the publication by working unspeakable hours, often at well below minimum wage.
Our operations were a continual race to increase our readership substantially and generate enough funds to hire more staff before we burned out. In April, when we looked at our readership and funding projections, we realized we would be struggling just to bring on a new hire to replace a recent departure and maintain a six-person staff for the next year. We would essentially be facing at least another year of overstretched resources, as far as ever from attaining the growth in capacity that we needed.
Despite a redesigned site with many new features aimed at attracting frequent visitors, our traffic was barely – if at all – increasing, and nothing we tried got the attention we needed most: that of other progressive websites and blogs. We knew that without links or reprints from other media outlets or a huge promotions budget, it would be nearly impossible for any tiny project to gain the readership we needed.
Meanwhile, even while seeking to broaden our appeal, we never strayed from our unrivaled journalistic standards, never pandered to lowest-common-denominator approaches pervading the rest of the media, and never accepted a single penny in advertising or foundation funds.
All that took its toll on us. It became clear that while our product should have been able to stand alone, it could not sell itself. The people we most needed to reach remained either oblivious to our existence or too preoccupied with more commercially hyped news outlets to give us a chance.
Some of our readers have asked us why we shut down after our Fall 2006 fundraising drive had appeared to be successful. During the six months that passed between that last drive and our decision to shut down, we actually suffered a significant net loss of monthly revenues. Many people who pledged in September to support TNS at relatively high monthly rates later quietly reduced their contributions or simply cancelled their memberships.
Despite financial hardships, we worked remarkably well together for a collective of overextended, hard-headed, extremely principled individuals. With no boss to give directives, the staffers always managed to pull together and reach amenable decisions. But even our collective cohesiveness could not ward off burnout and the morale-decaying effects of feeling like we were voices in the wilderness.
To the few thousand people who relied on TNS as a main source of news, we’re sorry we couldn’t hold on anymore – but there were pathetically few of you, and we were exhausted.
The Funding Model
TNS was 100% reader funded. We did not run advertisements. Nor did we accept grants. We eschewed corporate and foundation money because we did not want any special interests to influence our reporting. We wanted to remain accountable only to ourselves and our readership.
Many observers understandably believed that this insistence on absolute financial independence was our downfall. But we are certain that our demise did not demonstrate any inherent flaw with the readership-based funding model. Even though we closed before we had a chance to fully develop our editorial array and premium-content system according to our original vision, we see the basic funding structure as one of our main successes, and we wholeheartedly encourage others to learn from it and adapt it to their own publications.
We believe to this day that if our readership had been larger, our model of relying on a portion of our audience to sustain TNS through monthly donations would have filled our coffers past the brim.
Here’s how it worked: We set up a system in which our readers could sign up to donate a regular amount each month. Our average donor gave $14.72 per month, amounting to $176.66 per year. And with as many as one in six of our regular readers becoming donors, it is hard to imagine how we could have done better. We estimate, in fact, that we were raising about $46 per daily reader per year – a staggering figure. Those who knew our work tended to love and value it; it’s just that almost no one knew of it.
Several years on, we were just starting to move away from our partial reliance on readers who made extraordinarily large donations (not counted in the figures above), when our aim had always been to cultivate a robust and constantly expanding pool of supporters donating small amounts (as reflected above).
Some supporters pleaded with us to accept advertisements or foundation grants, but what few seemed to understand was that advertising would have provided a mere pittance in revenues, per website visitor, compared to what we were generating through our unconventional model. Indeed, adding advertisements to our pages would have alienated the readership and donorship we did attract.
The Workplace Model
Unlike most corporate and alternative media outlets, The NewStandard was published by a worker-run collective. When we founded TNS, we wanted to apply the highest ethical standards not just to news reporting but in the workplace as well.
We carefully structured our workplace to function efficiently while promoting equity, solidarity, self-management and diversity among staff. We did not do this from scratch: we had an extraordinarily helpful roadmap in an economic vision called “participatory economics,” dreamed up by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, and practiced in various forms by a handful of organizations in North America.
Each collective member had a balanced mix of responsibilities, ranging from mundane to empowering. This allowed us each to specialize and get good at our jobs, while evenly distributing the tedious and the empowering work across the collective. We participated equally in decision-making, and we eventually designed sophisticated systems for allocating sick days and holding each other accountable for screw-ups. In a world where most workers feel little ethical connection to their bosses, many may be surprised that we managed to discipline ourselves collectively this way. But we threw ourselves into this challenge with singular zeal and emerged as a stronger group and stronger individuals – all while publishing a daily news site.
In fact, without this egalitarian structure, TNS would never have gotten as far as it did. Without each of us feeling the sense of ownership and solidarity that our equal pay and equal empowerment created, none of us would have stuck it out this long.
Lack of Attention
While other progressive media outlets were attracting lots of visitors by focusing on sexy topics like Washington scandals, character dramas, campaign horse-race stories and numerous other superficial subjects, our eyes never strayed from the real issues and the institutional forces behind them. We pursued stories based on our collective perception of their actual relevance to the public interest. We naively thought that this would be noticed and appreciated by many, many people. Had any pundit or publication with a massive audience ever made a point of referring readers to TNS, we might have gained the response we needed. But without help, we stood no chance that enough people would ever hear of TNS for us to eventually gain the readership we needed to flourish.
Since our main problem was a lack of readers and “buzz,” it is important to explore why our site was not more popular. After well over three years online, very few progressive websites were taking note of, let alone taking advantage of, the articles we produced day in and day out. Indeed, over time we received fewer and fewer visitors by way of links from other progressive media sites, and nearly all of our site traffic was coming either from search engine referrals or from existing readers. That traffic was always very low and growing only slightly.
Try as we might, we found it extremely difficult to get many of the biggest progressive sites to so much as link to our home page even once – never mind linking to or reprinting our stories regularly. The same liberal and leftist “news aggregators” and blogs that reflexively link to corporate news articles on a daily basis steadfastly ignored our work – even on the very subjects our corporate counterparts were poorly covering, and even when we sent stories to them by email and encouraged them to link or republish.
Firm in our belief that our content was of unique quality, we never knew what to attribute this to, largely because editors refused to respond to our attempts at reaching out to them. Readers who also tried to bring TNS to these sites’ and bloggers’ attention ventured some theories in their frustration. Maybe we made “rival” sites look bad: instead of regurgitating or commenting on other people’s reporting, we did our own. Maybe those other sites feared our adherence to ethical operating and funding models would throw their own dubious integrity into sharp relief. Other supporters said we were too “real” or “radical” for the liberal Web establishment, mainly because we had no sacred cows and were obviously eager to scrutinize Democratic Party and mainstream activist groups as inherently flawed vehicles for social change.
Public Interest vs. Fascination
In all honesty, we cannot deny that our content was innately ill-suited for easy consumption. But while our subject matter might have been an inherently tough sell, this was, we are convinced, for the best reasons.
Commentary will always be more popular among progressive audiences than hard-news reporting. Leftists and liberals tend to want to read opinion that reinforces their belief systems. They actually appear more likely to read corporate or right-wing media than progressive hard news, probably because the former are so easy to dismiss. On the other hand, TNS did not hesitate to challenge left, liberal and progressive groups and ideas from a public-interest viewpoint. We may have jeopardized “popularity” on this side of the political spectrum by refusing to serve as an echo chamber for prevailing opinion-makers.
Of course, self-proclaimed progressives were never our main target audience. We know that most Americans who do not self-identify as “progressives” or “liberals” or “leftists” or “conservatives” or “libertarians” have generally progressive tendencies. And such people are more likely to want to read a diversity of opinions and viewpoints, and do not want to be hit over the head by the dictatorial ranting of white-male commentators of any political persuasion. We know our own readers largely fit into this category of non-ideological news consumers, but without a way to reach more such people, we were pretty much lost at sea.
We made the “mistake” of believing that the people most affected by policies were more important to listen to than the policymakers. Our concerted efforts to include the voices of homeless people, indigenous people, people with disabilities, young people and so many other disenfranchised groups did not seem to impress the “right” people or garner the attention we thought those efforts deserved.
As the popularity of corporate news sites proves, consumers do want information in a hard-news format. But we learned the hard way that “public-fascination journalism” too often trumps the public interest. As much as some more-critical consumers give lip service to desiring real, relevant news coverage, what sells – and what people seem to be too complacent to resist – is anonymous sources making claims about politicians, celebrities promoting flavor-of-the-week social causes, shooting sprees, and other spectacular garbage – by the shovel full.
In the end, TNS is a success story in many ways. We started with essentially nothing. We had literally no money. Almost no one we approached was willing to back us. 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 ZNet, one of the few publications that consistently extended TNS its solidarity. We persisted through dreadfully close calls and numerous minor organizational crises.
While perhaps a “failure” in a superficial sense, TNS became a rich achievement on a deeper level. After a year of work without pay, TNS was able to provide stable employment to up to six full-time staffers, while also rewarding numerous freelancers and others on a contract basis for professional work at competitive rates. We established a highly functional alternative business structure that equally empowered and remunerated everyone in the collective. We won awards that we can now admit none of us ever gave a damn about, but more importantly we won the respect of thousands of the most critical news readers on the Internet. We broke countless stories and provided exceptional coverage of hundreds more issues. TNS coverage of the Iraq occupation and the Katrina calamity surpassed its counterparts in the corporate and alternative media, asking tougher questions and sticking with crucial stories long after they aged off the front pages elsewhere.
Whether our product was ever popular or not, we showed that the best-known model for maintaining integrity in public-interest journalism was a non-profit funding system combined with a collective workplace structure.
And, popularity be damned, we never even thought about selling out; we never let funding considerations distort any of our content decisions or compromise our organizational mission.
But the price of integrity was failure in the media marketplace. If news consumers placed as high a premium on reading relevant and accurate news as we did in reporting it, The NewStandard would be thriving today, and most of the corporate and alternative media would be writing their own obituaries.
Throughout its existence, TNS thrived on the support of a great many people who operated behind the scenes – often as volunteers or contractors working for well below the market value of their contributions. We cannot list them all here, but a few deserve special mention. Marcus Denton, Ben Melançon and Mitchell Szczepanczyk expended terrific amounts of effort to help spread the word about TNS. Amanda Luker helped tremendously with design and promotions. In our later months, Gabriel Voilles worked early weekday-morning shifts compiling bulletins for our In Other News section.
As mentioned, we also received above-and-beyond support from ZNet, the editors of which generously appealed to their own supporters to help us as well – not the kind of solidarity one can expect in today’s cutthroat alternative media environment. Equally worthy of note were the support efforts by Currents of Awareness, a Canada-based organization that exists to promote independent news media efforts. From its inception, the folks at COA recognized TNS as a valuable project and made every effort to selflessly promote our work.
Several well-off readers who have declined to have their names made public supported our efforts with extraordinary contributions of financial support. They stuck remarkably well to our rules about not even discussing content with us so as to maintain the integrity of our product. While they may have recognized the monetary value of their support, we were far more impressed by the manner in which they gave it – usually several times over the course of years, with no strings attached, even though they were all regular readers.
The vast majority of our support from Day One of TNS’s release came in the form of relatively small donations, usually given on a recurring basis. That hundreds of people deemed TNS worthy of their backing was heartening to us. But when we began to learn that some donors were giving a significant portion of their net income to The NewStandard, we were tremendously humbled. Those contributors’ belief in TNS – more than the dollars they offered – was the main factor sustaining our efforts through years of struggle.