The Seattle local-news Web site I helped found, Crosscut, has finally earned 501(c)(3) status and has emerged from a difficult limbo during which Publisher David Brewster pulled off a minor miracle: He kept it alive with almost no money through the transition from an LLC and he grew the readership.
Today Brewster confirmed that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, through the Seattle Foundation, has granted Crosscut $100,000 to get back on its feet. First order of business: a membership drive.
Crosscut was launched as a for-profit venture in 2007, a little too soon to see the full folly of an earnest journalism business supported primarily by advertising. That wasn't the only challenge standing in the way of success, but it was the biggest one.
<digression> I was an investor as well as a salaried employee, so when it became clear a year ago that Crosscut would survive only as a nonprofit, I lost everything — my investment and my job. I was laid off in November 2008. I mention this not only to explain a conflict of interest but to remind everyone that I'm looking for work! (Does this count as one of my weekly "job search activities"?) Like all business failures, this one was highly instructive and a great experience in spite of my personal financial purgatory.
I've always wished Crosscut well, but I do so especially now that Brewster has hired Mark Matassa (left) to be editor, part time for the time being. Mark is one of the best journalists in Seattle. He was a reporter and then political editor at The Seattle Times when I was there, went to the Los Angeles Times for a while, then returned to Seattle to be an editor at the recently ink-less Seattle Post-Intelligencer. (His significant other, Michelle Nicolosi, remains at SeattlePI.com as executive producer. Not to be confused with Mark's sister, Michele Matassa Flores, who also worked at the Times and about whom I wrote recently.) I can't think of anyone more qualified to take Crosscut to the next level than Mark Matassa.
Seattle has become quite the incubator for the future of the news business — or whatever becomes of professional journalism. With legacy media companies nationwide circling the drain and many new ventures barely afloat, it’s not clear it will even be a business. Such as it is, it’s a business without much apparent upside. But some sort of economy that reflects journalism’s value is likely to emerge, and Crosscut and the non-profit model represent one solution. There are many others in Seattle — political, hyperlocal, cultural, biz-tech, and vertical. More so than most places, metropolitan Puget Sound is home to examples of every incarnation of change.
Seattle has long been an unusually diverse media market for its size (13th in the U.S.). Until this year, we had two or more of everything: two print daily newspapers in the city and two in the outer suburbs, two alternative newsweeklies, two NPR member stations, two slick lifestyle monthlies, two PBS stations — we even have two excellent niche business-tech news sites. As of this past spring, we have only one printed daily in the city, but the P-I remains alive as an experiment on the Web, albeit much diminished as a force of journalism.
Such a competitive environment attracts talent, and unlike elsewhere, that talent is reluctant to leave during economic disruption. Around the country, citizen journalism and crowd-sourced newsgathering are all the buzz, and they show much promise. But here in Seattle you’ll find that most of the news innovation is due to hard work by smart professional journalists like Matassa who have affinity for the place. It’s no accident. A metropolis gets the journalism it deserves.
We’re in for a period of news coverage of varying quality and thoroughness. There will be less methodical reporting about community institutions by media institutions, at least for a time. Local television could be next in the winnowing of legacy news sources — it may soon be that only one station can afford a helicopter and offer newscasts morning, noon, and night. But the stuff that replaces the monolithic one-to-many model of news dissemination is pretty exciting.