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Sep 20th
Miami’s Media Mystery PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Dorschner, BT Contributor; Photos by Silvia Ros   
October 2016

How to stay alive in an internet universe shaped by algorithms and dominated by social media

TCOVER_SHOT_wsvn_0088o understand the deeply fragmented world of Miami’s media landscape, let’s start with two examples.

Facebook Rules: At WPLG (Channel 10), web views of the news “almost equals or surpasses our on-air audience,” says Jeff Tavss, the station’s web specialist -- and the web force is expected to keep getting bigger.

What’s more, a “really gigantic” number of Local10.com viewers arrive via Facebook, either through friends who recommend stories or automated algorithms that select what stories the viewer is likely to want. This leads to a personalized selection of what each person sees -- a situation with vast implications during this highly polarized election season and beyond.

“We have a problem of alternative realities and polarization that is real and growing,” says Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the Virginia-based nonprofit American Press Institute (API), which is advising the Miami Herald on how to improve its web viewership. “The Facebook algorithm may be exacerbating the problem.”

The Russian Division: Twice a month, from her home in Coral Springs, Larisa Voychinsky edits a Russian-language newspaper, Reklama. Its 7500 copies are distributed free in Sunny Isles Beach and other Russian enclaves -- offering local news and a column on what’s happening in Russia.

That column is “not getting very popular,” she says. The problem is that many Russian readers are members of the old Soviet Union, including Ukraine, and some disagree mightily with Vladimir Putin’s maneuvers.

So even within South Florida’s small Russian community, the world is dividing -- so much so Voychinsky is thinking of dropping the column.

 


“It’s the Wild West”

 

CoverStory_1_LEAD_miami_herald_0112Back in the 20th century, most Americans shared common news sources. We read a local newspaper. We watched news on one of three channels. Many relied on Walter Cronkite to tell them what was important.

That world is gone forever. The Miami Herald’s Monday-Friday print edition, which sold 420,000 copies through much of the 1980s, today has a daily circulation of just 78,000, with its world, local, and business news scrunched into one section.

Viewership of local TV news is also generally in decline, as cable offers an array of choices, from Fox News to MSNBC. And of course the number of web sites continues to grow.

These splits are especially prevalent in diverse Miami, where Telemundo’s Channel 51 frequently leads all local news ratings, English and Spanish. Then there’s Creole radio, French newspapers, and Spanish weeklies devoted to particular countries.

“In a sense, Miami foretells the future,” says Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University. It’s leading the way for a nation facing a bewildering array of media choices.

“It’s the Wild West out there,” says API’s Rosenstiel.

That trend will only intensify. In its “State of the News Media 2016,” published this past June, Pew Research Center, the nation’s premier entity studying the media, questions the viability of not only print newspapers but also local broadcast television news.

In South Florida, a broad print market continues in niches, from high-end glossy magazines for the super-rich to publications like this one, dedicated to a geographic area. Dozens of blogs try to fill gaps, offering occasional scoops or wildly inaccurate accusations.

Some academics hope the future may be buttressed by nonprofit news agencies -- if they can find the money.

But when it comes to the major media players, it’s clear they’re betting on the web market. The Herald boasts it’s getting close to 11 million unique page views a month, almost double what it had a year ago.

The alternative weekly New Times says it has more than 2.2 million monthly users, far above its weekly print circulation of 50,000. Many are drawn by its strong enterprise efforts, such as its revelations on the Biogenesis baseball scandal, which received recognition in an exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Chuck Strouse, the weekly’s editor, says, “Print is still and will be vital as long as we continue creating that product.” But: “The web is our future.”

Strouse referred questions about staffing levels and plans for revenue building to publisher Adam Simon, who did not respond to a phone call.

The problem for every media outlet: All news is moving toward the web, and there’s not yet any certainty that web revenue can support serious journalism.

 


Smart Phones Taking Over

 

CoverStory_2_dario_moreno_0008This story began as a broad survey of how Miamians get their news these days, but it became apparent that simply listing all the news sources could consume pages. One example: The University of Miami published a 125-page report on how Miami Haitians get their news. The same could be done for Spanish radio, business journals, and many other categories.

This story has ended up examining a sampling of Miami media outlets. The emphasis is on the largest news providers -- TV, newspapers, and radio -- and their main concern: adjusting to the new realities of the web.

Let’s start with some national demographics, from a survey published by Pew in July: Across all age groups, 57 percent often get their news from TV, 38 percent from online, 25 percent from radio, and just 20 percent from print newspapers.

Print fares miserably through all age groups, with just five percent of people ages 18 to 29 often using newspapers. Even among those over 65, less than half (48 percent) often read newspapers, while 85 percent of seniors say they frequently turn to TV for news.

Those under age 50 get their news from the web more than from any other source, according to the survey. For the media, this is crucial, because the web segment keeps growing and advertisers target younger people who are more likely to be persuaded to try new products.

Increasingly, all age groups are connecting by cell phone. In August, the Virginia-based audience analytics firm comScore reported that nationwide, mobile devices are accessing the interne almost twice as frequently as desktop computers.

That could be even more applicable here. “Miami is a very mobile-centric market,” says Lily Pardo of WSVN (Channel 7).

 


“All Attention Is Not Equal”

 

CoverStory_3_rick_hirsch_0006The Herald is in the midst of a major initiative to adjust more completely to the web, with newsroom monitors counting how stories are doing online and measuring reporters by how many clicks their stories get.

Based at least in part on those clicks, the Herald is restructuring priorities, adjusting as its newsroom, once staffed with 435 employees, has shrunk to 115. “Think about how content has evolved,” says managing editor Rick Hirsch. It used to be that a reporter wrote a story, then marketing and circulation distributed it. Now, with reporters and editors posting directly online, Hirsch asks: “Who is the marketing and circulation department? It’s the newsroom.”

Helped by a Knight grant, the Herald newsroom is working with the American Press Institute to market itself better on the web, starting with improved headline writing, using a program called Chartbeat that the Herald hopes will somehow lead to increased revenue.

Hirsch says editors now can create two sets of headlines -- one with key words used to grab people in Google searches, the other with an enticing word to attract Facebook viewers.

Gauging the effect of these headlines is crucial, says Rosenstiel at API, “to know whether you’re wasting your time or not.” The evidence is that a straight government story headline -- “Miami Commissioners Meet” -- doesn’t get viewers. Neither do straight sports game reports. More enticing: “North Miami OKs Surprising Expense” or “Why Dolphins Defense Stumbled.”

Rosenstiel has been customizing metrics for the Herald and three other newspapers, measuring not just page views, but time spent on a story, time spent on the website, how many stories shared, and where the reader lives (some advertisers value local, others out-of-towners perhaps seeking to visit).

“All minutes and all attention is not equal,” says Rosenstiel. “The National Enquirer can’t get the same ad rate per reader that the New York Times can.”

But will the tech world value new metrics enough for advertisers to pay more? “Silicon Valley has not yet caught up,” Rosenstiel acknowledges, meaning they’re not willing to pay more for ads based on value-added metrics.

CoverStory_4_wsvn_0132The Herald’s owner, the McClatchy Company, doesn’t report finances of individual newspapers, but the corporate report for the first six months of 2016 shows that daily print circulation fell 8.3 percent, and the $36 million decline in print advertising sales was not made up by the $3 million increase in web ads. This is on top of repeated declines over the past decade or more.

One positive: “Long, enterprise, watchdog does very well on the web,” says Hirsch. He cites a Carol Marbin Miller story on child welfare that was near the top in page views.

Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute: “Our data is very clear: People read long forms on their cell phones.... If they’re on their phone and stuck at an airport or in line at a Starbucks, they’re reading.”

Even with its reduced staff, the Herald covers crucial issues that others do not, such as attempts to limit local campaign contributions, the Panama Papers, prison abuses, and the Opa-locka corruption scandal.

Yet when blogger Al Crespo got angry that his investigation into State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle was ignored, he didn’t blame the top TV news operations, Telemundo’s 51 or WSVN’s 7. He shouted in print: “THE MIAMI HERALD REFUSES TO ADDRESS THE BLATANT AND DOCUMENTED” abuses by Rundle.

Meanwhile, on the Herald’s Facebook page, a reader posted: “It’s too bad the Herald sucks as bad as it does. You used to be such a great newspaper.”

Hirsch: “We are still the biggest media institution in this town. We make a big target. It’s better than being ignored.”

 


TV -- Lots of Yellow Tape

 

CoverStory_5_wlrn_0013On a recent night, the early evening newscasts of the six main local stations -- two in Spanish -- all led with the same story: a construction worker hit by lightning.

The Spanish-language stations tackle some issues specifically for their audiences: baggage limits on trips to Cuba, for example, or food lines in Venezuela. Univision promotes a campaign to get out the vote among Hispanics.

All the stations, regardless of language, closely cover the Zika outbreak, but their staple is reporters standing in front of yellow crime tape, interspersed with store-cam videos of robberies.

Local ratings are not readily available -- Nielsen doesn’t publicly release local numbers, and stations provide only snatches that are favorable to themselves.

As noted, Telemundo boasts it’s usually at the top of local news, both English and Spanish. WTVJ (NBC 6) finished at the top in some categories in August, likely buoyed by the Olympics. Channel 7 says it’s the top English-language station in all time slots. Univision’s Channel 23 says it’s No. 2, regardless of language, in early and late news among 18- to 49-year-olds, a key demographic.

None responded to the question whether their overall viewership was dropping, but the national trend is clearly downhill. Pew’s “State of the Media” reports that the audience for late-night newscasts has decreased 22 percent since 2007. In 2016, local affiliates of the four main English-language networks lost news viewers “in every key time slot.” One reason: One in seven Americans has cut ties with cable.

People are still digesting TV news, but it’s increasingly on the web, where ad revenue costs much less. Pew notes: “The dilemma facing the TV news business bears an eerie resemblance to the one faced by the newspaper industry a decade ago.”

Stations are rushing to adjust.

Pardo at WSVN (Channel 7): “We’ve revamped our website” so that it can be viewable on any device. “We hired a social media producer to secure a top-notch presence on social media. WSVN is on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.”

Univision also has a strong web presence and has purchased Gawker Media, including the sports news site Deadspin and Jezebel, which targets women; The Root, a black-oriented news and opinion website; plus a stake in the satirical Onion. Chief executive Randy Falco says the network “is evolving to be a media company of the future,” in English and Spanish.

 


From Hard-Line Right to Public Radio

 

CoverStory_6_miami_herald_0065Radio in Miami once was dominated by hard-line Cuban anti-Communists. That audience has aged or died. The two main Cuban stations -- WAQI-710 Radio Mambí and WQBA-1140 Su Cubanísima -- have been bought by Univision, which switched them to more general formats.

Radio Mambí still ranks at the top of the AM competition (according to Nielsen’s August ratings) and its morning-drive person, Bernadette Pardo, is still a voice that many serious Spanish speakers pay attention to, says FIU’s Moreno. WQBA, which dropped the Cubanísima nickname, has general Hispanic talk-entertainment programming and was dead last in the AM competition in August (although Univision says the station’s audience grew by 45 percent over the past year).

The Pew Research “State of the Media” report notes that nationally, “revenues at Spanish news radio stations continue to decline.”

Univision, however, reports that its stations, including two music FMs in Miami, now have a major digital reach: 2.9 million listening hours so far this year, using the company’s Uforia App.

Meanwhile, the big gun of radio news in English is National Public Radio affiliate WLRN-FM. Teaming with the Herald, WLRN’s local radio news beats out all news stations in the market, AM or FM.

Peter Maerz, WLRN’s director of radio programming, says recent data show that the morning-drive audience has doubled since last year.

Still, the long-term trend is toward digital: “There is a division between age groups, but more and more people are getting their news...from their preferred digital sources,” Maerz writes in an e-mail.

Teresa Frontado, WLRN's digital director, notes that many listeners now stream audio from WLRN.org. Mobile users get content via the WLRN app, over NPR One, or through podcasts on iTunes.

“Our audiences are getting more and more used to the consumption on-demand model. They might not necessarily listen to ‘The Florida Roundup’ every Friday at 12:00 p.m., but rather play it or stream it via app at a later time,” Frontado says.

The top source for people visiting WLRN.org is a Google search (of a topic such as “Zika Wynwood”), followed by referrals (such as a mention on another website), but many listeners go directly to the website, which is an anomaly in this era. “We have a loyal audience that comes back at least two times a week,” says Frontado.

But she adds that social media has grown steadily as a source of web traffic, going “hand-by-hand with the explosion of content consumption via mobile. Facebook in particular established itself as a digital powerhouse.”

 


Facebook -- “The New Jersey Turnpike”

 

CoverStory_7_NewTimesSeveral years ago the media were concerned about news aggregators like Google News or Huffington Post or Yahoo News stealing eyeballs and ad revenue. These days, aggregators are rarely, if ever, discussed. For every major media company in America these days, the key question is how to interact with Facebook. “The beast,” Hirsch at the Herald calls it. “The largest digital entity that most people interact with.”

Pardo at Channel 7 says, “Facebook is our number No. 1 referrer of traffic.”

John Herrman in the New York Times: “Facebook...hasn’t just become nearly ubiquitous among American internet users; it has centralized news consumption in an unprecedented way.”

Each month, 200 million Americans are on Facebook. Pew notes that “younger adults are more likely to name social media as a main source of news,” but among adults of all ages, 62 percent now get news through social media, which means primarily Facebook.

For local media companies, the underlying problem is that for most of them, there’s little brand loyalty these days on the web. Rather than go to WSVN.com to see what’s happening, they arrive via Facebook or Google, after searching for, say, “Fernandez boat accident.”

The demographics among web users: 82 percent of those ages 18-29 are on Facebook, 79 percent of people 30-49, 64 percent of those 50-64 years. Even 48 percent of those over 65 are Facebook users.

The mean number of friends is 330 (according to 2014 Pew data), and these friends can provide an almost numbing list of postings on the streaming news feed, many posting more than once a day, everything from pictures of children to recommending an article comparing Trump to Hitler.

“Facebook is the New Jersey Turnpike of media distribution,” says API’s Rosenstiel. “It’s how you get from here to there for a lot of people.”

All major media organizations have Facebook pages, but in June they hit a major roadblock to getting their messages seen when Facebook announced it had developed new algorithms to help people manage this huge information stream.

CoverStory_8_ReklamaMiamiFacebook wrote that the change was intended to “help you see more posts from friends and family.... We learn from you and adapt over time. For example, if you tend to like photos from your sister, we’ll start putting her posts closer to the top of your feed.” This programming makes a news feed “subjective, personal, and unique.”

Thus, if you keep clicking on “Obama born in Kenya” stories recommended by friends, Facebook remembers that and puts those stories higher in your news feed. While doing so, Facebook measures your political leanings. (You can see how you’re rated by going to facebook.com/ads/preferences, then click “lifestyle and culture.”)

“What I see on Facebook is very much different from my wife,” says Tavss at WPLG (Channel 10). Even though they have many similar friends, their clicking habits tend to be distinctive.

What this means, reports Pew, is that Facebook has become a platform controlling the news people see in a way that was once reserved for editors.

Rosenstiel at API says Facebook is now altering the media feed in “alarming and profound ways.”

Hirsch at the Herald and many others are trying to understand the algorithms, to get their stories higher in the news feed. One key point: Many clicks and shares will push a media source higher in the Facebook news feed. Fewer clicks means a demotion to the bottom.

So if the Herald puts up a lot of little-read content on its Facebook page -- such as a review of a small gallery exhibit -- it drags down all content on the Herald site.

CoverStory_9_PoliticalCortadito“We just have had to work harder, adjust our content mix, and try new things to maintain our reach,” says Frontado at WLRN. She’s found that human-interest stories tend to do better than hard news on Facebook. Even so, WLRN’s Facebook offerings “combine hard-hitting pieces with stories about what is interesting or quirky in our communities. The common denominator is that local stories are the ones that move the needle for us.”

This Facebook curating-by-algorithm bothers some media experts because it means people are more likely to read news recommended by friends or personalized through the algorithms. Add that to the fact that many older Americans tend get their news from a particular cable channel, with Fox News leading the rankings.

The upshot is disturbing. In 2015, Bruce Bartlett, a senior Reagan and George H.W. Bush advisor, cited the findings of a university survey showing that people who watch only Fox News score lower on news knowledge tests than people who say they pay no attention to the news.

One example, from a summer NBC poll: 72 percent of registered Republicans have doubts that President Obama was born in the United States.

Moreno at FIU says that over the past several decades, there’s been a growing tendency in the United States toward an ideological segregation, with white Republicans tending to live next to white Republicans in suburbia, liberal urban dwellers next to other liberals, and so on. The upshot: Again, people are more likely to hear and share news stories they agree with.

The proliferation of online sources for news and commentary has turned this physical sorting into digital sorting, and Facebook has heightened the trend, perhaps exponentially.

“In a way, it’s more democratic” that there are so many sources on the web and TV to choose from, says Moreno, but when that leads to a narrower, not broader, world view, “you get news that’s self-fulfilling prophesies,” and this leads to gridlock in Washington and an election in which the two sides can’t even agree on basic facts.

“We’re very much in a new era,” says Moreno. “This isn’t good for America.”

 


Hourglass Nearing Empty”

 

CoverStory_10_LeFloridienThe major problem for media trying to adjust to Facebook -- as with everything else on the web -- is that it’s not clear how to find profits.

Pew’s gloomy assessment for newspapers: “Print newspapers, to be sure, have a core audience and subscriber base that the industry hopes will buy enough time to help ease the digital transition. But recent data suggests the hourglass may be nearing empty: A January 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that just 5% of U.S. adults who had learned about the presidential election in the past week named print newspapers as their ‘most helpful’ source.”

“It’s hard to monetize the web,” says API’s Rosenstiel. New websites pop up all the time, so there’s no scarcity of places to advertise. Thus prices for web ads “tend to keep going down, even as audiences are going up. Honestly, advertising is no longer going to be the subsidy that it was in the earlier era.”

This holds true for TV news and anyone else trying to get web dollars. “There is money being made on the web, just not by news organizations,” notes Pew in its June report.

Web ad sales grew 20 percent in 2015, but as Pew continues, “journalism organizations have not been the primary beneficiaries. In fact, compared with a year ago, even more of the digital ad revenue pie -- 65 percent -- is swallowed up by just five tech companies,” led by Google and Facebook.

One example: Facebook makes money by charging media companies who want to “boost” their place in the news feed. Rosenstiel believes one solution is for media companies to sell their web expertise as services -- for site building, modifying videos for mobile devices, and all the rest. (In fact, that appears to be what Miami New Times is attempting with its V Digital Services, whose offerings include providing advice on how to target audiences using social media.)

 


A Confession: “Would Have Driven Me Nuts”

 

CoverStory_12_FloridaBulldogI’m 72, a Herald journalist for 42 years before retiring in 2013. Since then I’ve freelanced for several outlets I’m writing about here: the Herald, Florida Bulldog, New Times, and of course this publication -- and I may write more for some of them in the future.

I’m an anomaly. I still like to sit in a comfy chair and read a hard copy of the Herald, the New York Times, and Biscayne Times, which is also read by a ton of my neighbors. I know because they compliment me more on my pieces here than what I write elsewhere. When I’m traveling, I go directly to MiamiHerald.com for news, making me a rare bird who starts with its home page.

My two younger sons, 31 and 27, never read print newspapers and have never had cable. They get news mostly on their phones, reading national and international subjects, rarely paying attention to local events.

I understand how this new Herald system of closely tracking a reporter’s web readership can lead to a necessary realignment of priorities, but I’m sure “click measuring” would have driven me nuts. Like all veteran journalists, I believe I have a well-honed sense of what’s important, and I’d hate to have my work reduced to a click number.

Since I retired, I sporadically post on my website, MiamiWebNews, concentrating on two issues I think the media generally ignore: affordable housing and transit. These posts tend to use wonkish headlines: “Key Transit Questions Unanswered.”

My posts have a tiny audience -- fewer than 400 views each -- and lately I haven’t posted much, because in both my subjects, there’s a lot of talk, no action.

Miami’s most followed bloggers, as I’ve discovered researching this story, tend to have strong opinions -- expressed loudly.

 


Blogs: News Scoops and Shill

 

CoverStory_11_TheCRESPOgramIn theory, a blog, which anyone can start for free on the web, can make up for reduced coverage by major media.

“I don’t trust any of them,” says FIU’s Moreno. “They all have axes to grind.” But because of his interest in local politics, he regularly checks three that generate buzz: Al Crespo at thecrespogram.com; Elaine de Valle’s politicalcortadito.com; and EyeonMiami.blogspot.com, by Nancy Lee and Alan Farago.

Crespo, a one-time bank robber, has remade himself into a celebrated watchdog, pulling scoops like mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado not paying property taxes. He’s gotten to the point that county Commissioner Rebeca Sosa has thanked him at a public meeting for his reporting on campaign contributions. But he tends to select some pols as enemies, such as the Regalados and the Miami-Dade State Attorney, and many of his attacks are ignored by other media.

De Valle, a former Herald reporter, uses her website to attack politicians she doesn’t like, but she has obliterated the line between journalism and partisanship by going to work for politicians, including this year for Regalado, a move that caused Crespo to blast her as a “SHILL” and “UNETHICAL.”

Eye on Miami pursues a persistently progressive stance. One recent headline: “Florida Clean Air Activist Thrown Out of Trump Rally for Doing … Nothing.” Lee has been criticized because until earlier this year she hid her blog writing behind a pseudonym.

In northeast Dade, Stephanie Kienzle’s Votersopinion.com is closely read by those who follow local politics. She too is a master of attack, as when she recently wondered whether a North Miami Beach councilwoman was lying: “Well, her lips ARE moving. So, yeah, she’s lying.”

Many bloggers seem like little dogs nipping at the heels of the powerful, and they love it when the big boys notice them, as happened recently when the Herald said a popular Miami Cuban site, babalublog.com, had unfairly tied JetBlue to a three-year-old Che Guevara cake in a post shared 166 times on Facebook.

Babalublog was ecstatic about the recognition, responding in a Trumpian double-down: “Miami Herald in FRANTIC (!!!) damage-control for their friends at JetBlue.”

 


Niche -- Taking Care of Business

 

CoverStory_13_TomRosenstielIn South Florida, there are plenty of niche publications that keep marching along, their attention on where the dollars are -- print ads -- and minimizing websites.

Some examples: Miami Today, a weekly now in its 34th year, prints 28,000 copies (distributed free to select business offices), aiming at upscale readers interested in business and government. “We’re trying to look at the things that leaders or potential leaders want to know,” says publisher Michael Lewis.

Among other things, he’s been doggedly covering transit issues, sending reporters to obscure committee meetings of the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Lewis, who says he plans to turn over the reins to someone else within the next five years, puts only a quarter of his content on the web. If viewers want more, they can buy a digital subscription: $60 a year, or order a print issue for $6.

Le Floridien, published twice monthly, is a French- and English-language paper for the area’s Haitian community, with 10,000 copies distributed free to churches, stores, and businesses.

“I do not generate money on the website,” says publisher Dessalines Ferdinand, instead offering the web as a bonus to his print advertisers (as does Biscayne Times, which prints 30,000 copies and uses a website button to link to print ads).

Most Miami Haitians get news of the home country from radio stations, such as the Haitian-owned WSRF 1580-AM, says Ferdinand. He concentrates on South Florida, in French with some English (for younger readers). One recent article: the Florida Senate is about to get its first Haitian American because that’s the ethnicity of both remaining candidates in District 38.

Another stalwart is the Miami Times, in its 94th year, serving the black community with unswerving dedication. It recently announced plans for a $1 million redo of its NW 54th Street property that would include a farmers market and an area for community gatherings.

Reklama, the Russian newspaper, has a “pretty active” website with about 5000 visitors, but Larisa Voychinsky too gets virtually all her money from Russian-language print, with “a little in English, for younger people.” She also publishes a monthly magazine, plus Medical and Beauty News and a joke publication, Don’t Get Bored!

When I asked if she made a comfortable living, she replied heatedly: “Well, if you consider I’m working 24/7 and I can’t go anywhere for more than five days without things getting crazy.”

 


Future: Nonprofit Bulldogs?

 

CoverStory_14_DanChristensenAs the traditional for-profit media struggle, the Knight Foundation notes, “Nonprofit news organizations offer the potential to become part of the bedrock of a strong local news...ecosystem.” Its 2015 study of 20 such entities found they are growing and “inch closer toward more sustainable business models. But progress has been uneven and for the majority of organizations in the study, sustainability is just a premise on the distant horizon.”

Dan Christensen thinks that’s a fair assessment. He is leader of the area’s most ambitious and visible nonprofit news outfit, the online Florida Bulldog, and he’s racking up must-reads, such as questioning Saudi connections to 9/11 and doubting whether All Aboard Florida -- the ballyhooed plan for a train from Miami to Orlando -- will really happen.

He wishes local foundations, such as Knight, were doing more to help nonprofits -- “journalism is in crisis” -- but he hasn’t gone through the time-consuming process of applying for grants. “I’m here to do journalism,” he says. “I’m not here to fill out forms.”

Web ads are minimal -- “maybe $150 a quarter.” Most of his funding comes through contributions, some of them with the help of board member Merrett Stierheim, the former county manager, who has taken Christensen around to meet leaders, including developer Armando Codina. Back in Christensen’s early reporting days, Codina “once threatened to punch me in the face.” Codina gave the Bulldog $10,000.

The Bulldog’s federal filing for 2014 showed total revenue of $91,661, including $27,092 from program services, primarily newspapers paying to reprint Bulldog stories. Last year, contributions were up, but payments from newspapers were way down, says Christensen. The Sun Sentinel has told him it has no money for freelance, and the Herald has cut back considerably.

For us news consumers, the question is how much we’re missing because of reduced resources. The answer is simple: We don’t know yet.

“I have a stack of stuff on my desk I can’t get to,” Christensen says of the crying need for more local investigations. “I have reporters [from other media outlets] forwarding information to me that they can’t get to.”

 

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