The Pulitzer Prizes were announced today, and The Washington Post and The New York Times, as usual, added a stash of trophies to their collections. The National Enquirer was nominated but did not get an award for going where no mainstream publication would go and ruining the career of former presidential candidate John Edwards. You don’t look to the Pulitzers for surprises, but there was a new sort of winner in this year’s list of those given journalist’s highest honor. ProPublica, a self-described “non-profit newsroom,” won its first Pulitzer, less than two years after it began publishing pieces. Sheri Fink shared a win in the investigative journalism category for a report on a hospital’s doctors trapped by Hurricane Katrina that was published in The New York Times Magazine. As the newspaper industry dies day by day, some observers think that one way to save the sort of investigative journalism newspapers used to excel at, before they began turning into celebrity tabloids, is to take the profit problem out of it. ProPublica has a team of reporters, funded to the tune of $10 million a year by philanthropist couple Herbert and Marion Sandler, who do their work and then get it published in the traditional media. It’s sad that newspapers no longer seem interested in keeping a staff of their own investigative reporters, but I suppose it’s nice someone else is doing the job for them. One wonders how long such an organization can survive, though—there aren’t many following their lead, and the nation’s philanthropists have many demands on their money.
Journalists who are being let go from an industry that’s slowly but surely shrinking aren’t just finding reporting jobs elsewhere, however. Some are becoming owners, albeit of small publications. Monocle has a report on “the new media moguls”—journalists who are buying or creating small papers in small towns.
Robrish is about to begin his third month as the founding editor, publisher, and only employee of The Elizabethtown Advocate, a weekly community newspaper he launched in Elizabethtown, a town of 12,000 people in Pennsylvania.
He may own his own newspaper but Robrish’s is not quite the glamorous life of a media mogul. He had spent the morning hand-delivering copies to stores and the two functioning coin boxes where his newspaper is sold. Robrish writes nearly everything except high-school sports coverage in the assiduously local newspaper. He was speaking from a late-afternoon Amtrak train to Philadelphia, where he was heading for a dinner party, able to leave Elizabethtown only because he had the confidence that a new college intern would be able to cover that evening’s Borough Council meeting.
Some critics—such as Apple’s Steve Jobs, now touting an eBooks store—have declared that people are no longer reading. But this new “media mogul” didn’t buy it.
He first visited Elizabethtown in late August and saw all the prerequisites for community-newspaper success. There were three major employers he considered recession-proof: Elizabethtown College, a large nursing home and a sweet factory owned by Mars. The downtown was filled with independent retailers who represented a base of potential advertisers. And the city had, despite tough economic times, recently finished construction of a new library. “When I saw that, I thought: this is a town that values reading,” Robrish says. “You see a town this big that has no paper and you think, here’s an opportunity.”