Can Greenwald save lost generation of independent journalists?

(Originally published by the Huffington Post)

By Elza Fiúza/Agência Brasil under Creative Commons license
I am often bemused when I hear discussions about the future of quality mainstream journalism. Most newspaper journalists accept their industry is in decline, yet often they express optimism at how "exciting" and "uncertain" the future is. The old advertiser-driven business model will soon be replaced by a magical new one, they maintain. Nobody knows exactly how this new model will work yet, but we can be certain that it will spontaneously appear any time now, for the convenience of journalists, editors and proprietors.

Of course, for all the talk of excitement and uncertainty, real journalism requires subsidy and even those running the best broadsheets appear to have few answers. Consider the following candid remarks by the Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, delivered at the Berlin Institute of Media and Communications Policy in 2009: "The people who are doing serious journalism have to accept that that is not sustainable...", he said, later adding "...the advertising doesn't seem to be there and the audience for it is declining. So you can cling on to that model but in the end you will just fall off the edge of a cliff."

This may sound like an admission of defeat, but Rusbridger was undeterred. "We're just beginning to get glimmerings of how it is going to work", he continued. "...if you can allow yourself to imagine the blurring between the journalist and the reader and involve the reader more...I think you begin to see a new model." Four years on Rusbridger's vision is close to fulfilment. Dozens of Guardian staff have been made redundant and his newspaper is pioneering a new, interactive model of journalism whereby readers are invited to participate in content production by commenting on articles, creating their own material and submitting ideas to editors.

Needless to say this model provides few solutions to the problems facing serious journalism. The emergence of reader driven content, whilst cheap to produce and very often informative, also provides a convenient smokescreen for the growing deficit of expensive investigative reporting. Of course there are some notable exceptions to this trend, including the excellent work of Greenwald and Nick Davies, but those journalists will be the first to tell you their craft is in trouble.

Meanwhile, another interesting development is taking place. Talented writers are graduating from universities and colleges around the globe, eager to conquer the world of journalism. Many of them have romantic ideas about what serious journalism should entail, fuelled by the legacies of great reporters such as Paul Foot, John Pilger and Martha Gellhorn. Yet they will soon be disappointed to learn that the mainstream press lacks the resources to nurture their ambitions.

Some of them will compromise, typing up yet another dull press release whilst reassuring themselves that it's only a matter of time before the economy picks up and the editor sends them on the sort of expensive assignment they always dreamed of. Others will realise the game is over - if they want to do real journalism they will have to do so independently. They will follow the lead of George Monbiot, who had the courage to pursue this path when he began his career and advises young journalists to do the same today.

It is among this second group that I believe the future of serious journalism truly lies.

And here the future really is uncertain. Nobody can know what will become of these determined young journalists, although certain trends are beginning to emerge. Many young writers are growing weary of the mainstream media, whose editors will occasionally publish their articles but apologise that their lack of a budget means they can't pay a fee on this occasion (although they hope to be able to do so in the near future as soon as the economy picks up.)

Among those who have benefited from this are alternative outlets - often funded exclusively by readers or by generous foundations - which are willing to pay young writers a fee, albeit a small one, for serious journalism. These outlets have limited budgets and face many challenges, but Greenwald's announcement that he will soon be helping to create a well-funded, progressive journalism organisation to rival the mainstream could be a key turning point.

Although precisely what form it will take (and whether it will be sustainable) remains to be seen, Greenwald has secured substantial financial backing from the billionaire founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, who has pledged to invest in "supporting independent journalists in a way that leverages their work to the greatest extent possible..." Such a venture represents an unprecedented and exciting development, not least for a lost generation of independent reporters who find themselves in desperate need of support for their invaluable work.