Journalism.co.uk caught up with Rep J's founder, Leonard Witt, the Robert D. Fowler distinguished chair in communication at Kennesaw State University, to find out more.
What exactly is the concept of 'Representative Journalism'?
[LW] As mass journalism markets un-bundle and become niche markets, news operations - if they are to survive - will have to join the niche movement rather than fight it.
Rather than think in terms of a circulation of say 100,000, they should think in terms of 100 niche markets of 1,000 each and form membership communities around those niches.
The centerpiece for each membership community will be the news and information tailored to each community's needs, with a reporter and editing support devoted specifically to each community of 1,000.
Online social networking, interactivity, face-to-face events will all be used to build group cohesion.
A network weaver will help to bring the groups together: the 100 individual groups can be diverse as a lawyers' group, wanting local legally related news; to hunters or low level healthcare workers, wanting their information needs met by their own group's Representative Journalist. It could be a whole small village that wants better coverage.
All these niche membership groups are then aggregated under an umbrella news operation, which in turn might be aggregated further with other umbrella operations nationwide or internationally wide.
Representative Journalism aims to build sustainable journalism one small group at a time.
What's the first thing you'll use the Harnisch foundation money for?
That's actually ongoing funding: Ruth Ann Harnisch, the foundation's president, has been an advocate and an inspirational force for the Rep J concept.
She came to the idea because she wanted a journalist to cover her own passion, professional coaching, but she saw the merit of what we are trying to do and provided the funding so we can road test the idea and do more research.
Earlier this year the foundation provided more than $60,000 so we could a trial run in Northfield, Minnesota, at the LocallyGrownNorthfield.org blog.
The latest installment will be used to advance research aimed at discovering innovative ways to produce financially sustainable, high quality and ethically sound journalism.
It will allow us to help underwrite more applied research, build collaborations and advance innovative projects around the USA and maybe the world to test the viability of citizen-funded journalism.
How do you see the concept evolving?
I have often said I thought the Public Broadcasting Service in the USA should pick up this Representative Journalism model. It already has a trusted brand name and they understand fundraising.
Plus right now there is a void in TV news in the USA. It's all a bunch of talking heads. One estimate holds that there is about 18 minutes of narrative news each day on TV, and it was pretty much the same 18 minutes on each network.
Now that the cost of making TV à la backpack journalists is about the cost of making radio, you could get a video journalist with salary, benefits, editing and equipment for less than $70,000 a year. That reporter could be supported for web journalism by 1,000 people paying less than $1.50 a week. The cost per individual could be even less if a local foundation provided funding or other bigger entities chipped in.
I have been banging on PBS's doors for a long time looking for someone to see the merit in what I am saying. Steven M. Bass, president and CEO of Oregon Public Radio, likes the idea and we are going to see if it works in three rural parts of Oregon.
The towns get very little coverage. If it works there, watch out: everyone will be banging down the Representative Journalism door.
You're testing Rep J out first in Minnesota - why is this important and how did you choose the testing ground?
Griff Wigley started a blog there called LocallyGrownNorthfield.org. He has been into online community building since the mid 1990s.
He along, with Ross Currier and Tracy Davis, post [content] and then lots of people in the community jump into the conversation. They had a nice little online community. They wanted a journalist to dig and report, so we provided them Bonnie Obremski, a fellow/journalist, who we are underwriting as part of the experiment.
We are learning a lot: at first her tone was very newspaperish, now it has become more conversational. It's still strong, ethically sound journalism, but not so one-to-many; it is more many-to-many, as if she were part of a conversation.
In the long run, we would like the community to find enough value in what she does to support her - that's part two of this trial project.
Newspapers and media outlets are struggling everywhere: what are the chances of making new news projects financially sustainable?
Big news operations are mired in debt. Plus they are actually big manufacturing businesses that just happen to stick news on paper.
What if they just produced the news? Nothing else. The costs would drop substantially. Of course, everyone says no one will pay for online news. There is too much free stuff.
But as more and more newspapers sink, there will be less and less journalism. If you want it, you will have to pay for it. If you don't want to pay for it, fine, but I don't think it will be much fun living in a free society without high quality, ethically sound journalism.
If everyone paid just $1.50 a week, you would have your own journalist covering issues important to you, plus you would have access to content from everyone else's journalists - what a bargain.