Newsy News

The idea of PublicSource, the Pittsburgh "community journalism" initiative modeled (sort of) on Pro Publica, got its first public airing last Summer in the wake of the end of "News.Jazz.NPR" WDUQ and the beginning of its successor, "Essential Public Media."  We'll lose the broadcast jazz, went the argument, but we'll get a new robust resource for publicly-minded journalism about Western Pennsylvania.   Pittsburgh Filmmakers honcho Charlie Humphreys and two major foundations, the Pittsburgh Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, teamed up with local a murderer's row of local print and broadcast publishers, including both Essential Public Media and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, to launch PublicSource.  (The full list is here.  Among many other things, Public Source is all about transparency.)  PublicSource goes live this coming Saturday.

Anyone interested in the retrenchment of journalism in Pittsburgh and elsewhere over the last five years (and counting) has to be pleased by this.  Thoughtful journalism is part of the lifeblood of the community, yet no single publication or broadcaster in Pittsburgh has the resources these days to it both well and consistently.  The editorial roster of the Post-Gazette is so thin that the paper is consistently adequate (maybe) and great only once in a while.  Even the PG's sports pages, long among its strongest departments, are looking pretty long in the tooth these days.  And don't get me started on the Editorial Board.  How will PublicSource improve the PG, or anyone or anything else?  It's hard to know, exactly, but that's no reason to be skeptical.  Something must be done to liven things up and bring more spotlights to bear.  So PublicSource is ... something.

Yet deep in the background there is a modest voice that should be heard, and its lessons remembered.  That voice is the shadow of the Pittsburgh Press.

If you're young enough or new enough to Pittsburgh that my recent "Fresh Eyes" series appeals to you, then you may not know anything about the Pittsburgh Press.  But for many years the Pittsburgh Press was the big, dominant paper in Pittsburgh.  Many of the senior members of what's left of the Post-Gazette's editorial side are, in fact, veterans of the Press.  What happened to the Press?

In the early 1960s, during the first great wave of public hand-wringing over the future of daily print journalism (yes, that was more than 40 years ago!), the Press and its junior rival, the Post-Gazette, entered into a Joint Operating Agreement, or JOA.  The Pittsburgh JOA was one of more than two dozen of these deals around the US.  Rival newspapers combined parts or all of their business and distribution sides, yet maintained separate newsrooms and published separate papers.  Fifty years ago, the labor costs associated with newspaper independence in multi-newspaper towns were eating journalism alive.  JOAs were the solution of that era, and they were so popular, at least among the men who owned newspapers, that Congress even passed a special law just to ensure that JOAs would not be ruled illegal antitrust conspiracies.  JOA supporters in Congress and in the newspaper business crowed that the JOA solution preserved editorially independent "voices" -- rival newspapers -- while giving the relevant papers a form of Congressionally-blessed economic stability.

Well.  The solution was less than it seemed, because as economists taught us long ago, there is no such thing as a free lunch.  In Pittsburgh, a crippling newspaper strike in the early 1990s eventually put an end to the JOA here.  When the dust from the strike settled, the Press was gone.  Only the Post-Gazette survived.  And diverse editorial "voices" emerged, over time, across a variety of media -- print, broadcast, and later the Internet.

Newspaper businesses are businesses, after all; they are subject to competitive pressures of all kinds, not just pressures from labor, or from rival papers.  Today, the problem is not labor costs as such; today, print journalism has been eaten alive by the death of classified advertising and the vicissitudes of display advertising (big department stores no longer buy huge display ads all the time, because big department stores themselves got eaten alive by big box stores, which advertise in different ways).  I'm not shedding tears for the Press, or for the Pittsburgh JOA.  (I wrote a post here about conceptual problems with JOAs.)   I'm only pointing out that the solution de jour -- PublicSource, in the present case -- may be nothing more than a stopgap, in large part because it makes such an effort to prop up the idea of the traditional institutions of journalism:  newspapers, tabloids, radio stations, television stations.  I'm a huge fan of those traditional institutions; I grew up with them, not just because of the era of my youth but because of what my family did for a living.  I still collect two newspapers per day at the foot of my driveway.  But those traditional institutions are dead and dying.

What PublicSource may supply and eventually truly become (I can only hope) is journalism, with all of the disciplinary focus and tradition and professional judgment that are embedded in that concept, but without the baggage of trying to squeeze journalism into the 20th century commodities that we still call "newspapers," even though they rarely contain anything that is new, or news.  Print is great, and let us hope that the iPad does not finally kill print altogether.  Radio is great, and let us hope that Pandora and Spotify and so forth do not kill radio altogether.  But what happens to PublicSource when its partners are even weaker than they are now?

PublicSource is funded by foundations but derives its institutional legitimacy, at the moment, from those partners.  (Why else highlight their commitment to the venture?)  Those partners are, otherwise, rivals, and because of the collaboration among rivals, PublicSource reminds me of the antitrust problems that JOA newspaper publishers faced in the early 1970s.  The problem of editorial independence was real, and the competitive problems were real, but publishers tried to solve both problems at once, by trying to have their editorially competitive cake and eating their commercially collaborative cake, too.  (What made it worse, back then, was the idea that wealthy men were conspiring to do the right thing by local communities, when suspicions ran strong that they were just enriching themselves.  Newspaper conglomerates have replaced wealthy publishers as the bête noires of journalism, although Pittsburgh has been spared their impact.)   When the collaboration foundered, the editorial competition evaporated.  Let us hope that Public Source has thought about and can dodge the antitrust concern, so that when the collaborative foundation crumbles, as it eventually will, the editorial side can still thrive.


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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