It was Reagan who lied to us first.
The "us" is a room of about 30 people, overwhelmingly of the Millennial set. We're gathered in Highlandtown listening to a panel of CEOs, nonprofit founders, artists, and students talk about what they're doing to make Baltimore City a better place, the sort of easy, hopeful rhetoric that, at least at tonight's event, is supposed to go unchallenged. One gets the feeling that Paul Jay, the founder, CEO, and senior editor of the Real News Network, feels especially sorry for the folks in attendance in their 20s and early 30s. Because in his calculation, they've been lied to virtually their entire lives.
"You are the generation that has had the most access to information in history," Jay says. "And you're also the generation that may have been the most lied to in history."
And then Jay, a middle-aged man of dual citizenship-a mother from Chicago, a father from Montreal-makes his main point: Complicit in this web of lies is a credulous mainstream news media, largely controlled by corporate interests as a result of its dependence on advertising revenue, that practices a kind of self-censorship to preserve access and keep the checks rolling in. What's needed, therefore, is a new media outlet whose interests lie with everyday people and whose economic model "rewards going where the facts go, no matter the consequences," Jay says. For him, that means financial dependency on viewers, readers, and listeners, and not on advertising.
Enter the Real News Network, an independent, nonprofit, online outlet that, since its founding in the middle of the last decade, has focused on producing five-to seven-minute video reports. Drivers cruising downtown on I-83 have probably seen the network's sign on the north side of the old C.J. Youse Building, on Holliday Street. In April,they also took over the adjacent building, the former location of the Brink's armored car company, blocks away from the Baltimore Sun and in the shadows of City Hall.
The mission, according to Jay, is to practice investigative journalism about Baltimore's problems-crime, a deteriorating public education system, and the privatization of public housing, to start-report on people and groups formulating potential solutions, and then host town hall-style debates that bring together academics, policy wonks, and everyday residents to talk about possible fixes.
"People are very focused on their city, and there's no television worth watching about it," Jay says during a tour of the Real News Network's 35,000-square-foot, partly renovated space in May. "We want to become the mainstream media for Baltimore."
But that's only one part of why an Internet media outlet initially focused on international news has since become an Internet broadcast network dedicated to local reporting. Funding from foundations and small donations from loyal followers-a move to make the operation reliant on "ordinary people," Jay says, for its livelihood-never totaled enough to create a truly global media network when Real News began doing daily news in fall 2007. After five years of experimentation, Jay recalibrated, pivoted the network to local news, and landed on Charm City as the pilot site. He believes he can export Real News to Oakland, Detroit, Philadelphia, and more cities if this model of people-funded reporting works in Baltimore. And with a full-time staff of 16, a brand new media center, and a collaboration with local public radio powerhouse Marc Steiner, all Jay has to do now is persuade everyday Baltimoreans to tune in.
"They thought Baltimore was the perfect place to tell stories about urban America," Steiner says one afternoon in late April. "They wanted us to work with them. So we did; we are."
But finding a way for independent local news to pay for itself is something Jay is still figuring out. As a documentary filmmaker for more than 30 years, producing and directing films including Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows, about former World Wrestling Federation superstar Bret Hart, and Return to Kandahar, about a woman's search for her childhood friend in Afghanistan, Jay worked with budgets of more than $1 million, a sizable sum for one-off video projects.
When he launched Independent World Television in 2005, the first version of what would become the Real News Network, he had about $4 million in startup funding from several big donors, including the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, but was well shy of the $25 million mark he was hoping to get to compete immediately with cable television stations.
"The original plan was to create a real, full-fledged television network that could contend with cable news," he says. "The idea was, if you had 500,000 people donating $10, you start getting those kinds of numbers."
Jay readily admits Real News didn't see anything in the vicinity of $25 million. In 2013, the Real News Network raised just above $1.2 million, according to numbers provided by the network, with almost all of that going to news-producing costs. A little less than $440,000 came from individual donors, while the rest came from several foundations. (The $3 million for the two buildings Real News occupies on Holliday Street was provided by the Delaware-based Quitiplas Foundation; Real News has a 99-year lease at both spaces and pays $10 a year, the stipulation being it continues to produce its news programming.) Three or four online fundraisers are held per year to raise money, Jay says; as of press time, Real News had raised $31,000 of its goal to clear $150,000 by June 22.
It's certainly not the first, or only, independent media in town. The Baltimore Brew, written mostly by newspaper industry veterans Fern Shen and Mark Reutter, has been around for several years, and takes the credit for breaking news in one of the coverage areas Jay says the Real News is looking to explore: the decision by Baltimore Housing to privatize the city's public housing.
But the Real News Network is certainly the largest such outlet in Baltimore, even though it's been headquartered here for barely two months. Close to $700,000 went to newsroom costs in 2013. The nonprofit has a full-time person based in Jerusalem filing two stories per week. Six days a week, about an hour of new, original programming is uploaded to the Real News website (therealnews.com). This year could be the breakout year Jay has been hoping for, as Real News recently signed a contract with Comcast to be available on demand in 8 million houses across the Northeast; another 5 million homes have Real News' content available to them via Roku, a tiny box for streaming video that allows people to port online videos for viewing on their home televisions.
The model for news coverage-video reports coupled with town hall-style events in a 125-seat soundproof studio equipped with a green screen, as well as the tech for livestreaming to the Internet and eight-camera switching-appears to borrow from Jay's time producing an hourlong debate show for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for over 10 years. Based on his description, FaceOff, which gave birth to CounterSpin in 1998, sounds like the thinking man's version of CNN's Crossfire. It consisted of multiple guests crowded around a debating table, as opposed to Crossfire's format of two co-hosts and two debaters, and every episode was filmed in front of a live audience that routinely consisted of everyday citizens and professionals with knowledge of the debate topic. If the program one night was devoted to healthcare policy, for example, doctors, nurses, and health policy experts were in the first two audience rows.
"It was witty and smart, but we had a rule," Jay says. "To be a guest on the show, you had to know what you were talking about-so we almost never booked politicians."
The show went off the air in 2004, but it had revealed two factors crucial to Jay's thinking about news produced for a mass audience. The first was his growing disdain for assigning editors who he says "did not have an agenda of producing meaningful television," favoring instead programs with a more sensationalistic, almost reality-TV-like bent.