How to Build an Ecosystem for High-Quality Journalism

German Reporters Say the Future of Digital Media Will Be Structured Like a Coral Reef

People all over the world are searching, like explorers, for a model to support the high-quality digital journalism our societies and democracies need.

We think we’ve found a model at sea. It looks like a reef.

Coral reefs are miracles of evolution. They are among the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. They exist in a nearly nutrient-free ocean and have no central control—and yet they are enormously productive. They are also endangered.

Reefs have more than a little in common with freelance journalists. Freelancers are one of the most important resources for media businesses. In times of cutbacks and shrinking editions, freelancers are often the only people who still have the expertise and specialization necessary to find and tell original and elaborately-researched stories. They know how to reach audiences. They are often creative and entrepreneurial. They are out and about in the world. They make sure that the media actually has something to say about the universe outside its self-referential filter bubble.

But freelance journalists are also one of the weakest links in the media food chain. They are dependent on publishers, who pay them worse and worse wages, and provide less and less support to boost the value of their editorial projects. Freelancers are individual combatants, often without access to colleagues with complementary skills such as photographers, illustrators, data visualizers, and lecturers.

How can such journalists join forces productively? It requires being attached to a larger body: The reef.

Reefs have many niches, small and large inhabitants, symbioses, cooperation—and also competition. Freelance journalists need their own reefs, places where they can join forces to form cooperatives and access the resources they need to do what they do best: quality journalism.

On the “Reef,” journalists would have choices. They could form alliances to cover themes under a common name; they could cooperate with each other and share external costs. They could work with publishers and institutions to disseminate their work. And they could, if they wish, develop ways to get paid by readers directly, or to collect advertising revenues through their work.

Journalists need support and agility so they can build up their own readership, and present projects through a variety of channels and social media.

A Reef of this sort would require technology. At the core of our Riff Reporter project (Riff is German for reef) is a joint work platform named PolyPublisher, which we have been developing over the past two years. PolyPublisher will offer Reef inhabitants a modern, lean content management system that works with text, audio, video, and still images. It will give writers the possibility to publish as teams or all by themselves, the possibility of monetizing their work through micropayments, and interfaces with social media through tools such as Facebook Instant Articles, and payment platforms.

We are close to building our Reef. At the end of November, a small alpha version of PolyPublisher will launch, with limited features, for a select number of journalists. In the spring of next year the beta phase is to start. The official launch is planned for early summer 2017.

At the moment, the Reef project is still organized as a limited liability company which develops, operates, and maintains the software and, for the time being, also publishes content. As we bring in more authors and partners, the next step will be to found a cooperative that provides its members with the tools they need and the public with a wealth of high-end journalism.

Reef is a project by journalists for journalists. More than two dozen contributors plan to populate the Reef initially, and to use it to produce diverse stories and projects. The Reef may be low in nutrients (as paying for journalism isn’t typical in the “digital ocean” yet), but it will be rich in species. The reef’s founders will be there. Christian is a freelance journalist for the German magazine GEO, Yale E360, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and a past political correspondent with Der Spiegel; Tanja Kramer is a technology and neuroscience freelancer with editorial experience;. Maximilian is a legal journalist and founder of the widely read constitutional law forum Verfassungsblog, and was formerly a long-standing political correspondent at Handelsblatt. Other co-founders include the web designer and programmer Sebastian Brink, and Uwe H. Martin, freelance photographer and multimedia producer at the Bombay Flying Club.

At first, our main focus will be on science, technology, the environment, health, and society. These are subject areas that interest millions of people, and that require special expertise and creativity in storytelling. At a time of discussion about the “post-factual” age, science journalists remain in demand. If this works—and by “works” we mean produce high-quality journalism, collaborations that support that journalism, and revenue—the Reef can grow to touch other journalistic topics.

What isn’t the Reef? Not another mass-media online magazine with a central website. We don’t think the world needs that. Journalists need support and agility so they can build up their own readership, and present projects through a variety of channels and social media.

Ultimately we don’t believe the Reef should be a publisher. We don’t envision competing with publishers. As in a real coral reef, there will be no boss who controls everything. Every author will be responsible for his projects, both entrepreneurially and legally. At the same time, the Reef will be a creative community that offers standards, tools, and rich possibilities for cooperation.

The Reef is also not a blogger or “citizen journalist” network of the type we see in many cities and countries. It is for professionals, and you won’t be able to buy a membership. The idea is to limit it to people who meet high professional standards and have been invited in by existing members.

In this era of climate warning and ecosystem collapse, coral reefs become ever more endangered and ever more important. Digital media faces a similar problem as the media ecosystem evolves. This is why we think reefs are a perfect symbol for our project: They are a diverse and adaptable living thing that the world cannot afford to lose.

Christian Schwägerl is a freelance journalist for Yale E360, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and the author of numerous books. Maximilian Steinbeis is a legal journalist and founder of the widely read constitutional law forum Verfassungsblog, and was formerly a long-standing political correspondent at Handelsblatt. They are both among the founders of The Reef.
Primary Editor: Joe Mathews. Secondary Editor: Eryn Brown.
*Photo by Jens Meyer/Associated Press.

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