The Oshkosh Community News Network is a membership organization, chartered as a nonprofit corporation in the state of Wisconsin and recognized by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt public charity under section 501(c)3.

The mission of OCNN is to enrich the social and civic life of Oshkosh area communities and create models of online and participatory journalism. Its specific goals are to:

Advance public understanding of important issues.
Strengthen the social bonds that tie an increasingly diverse community.
Empower individual readers as citizens rather than consumers.
Encourage citizens to be active contributors to news coverage instead of passive recipients of information.
Provide training opportunities for students and others in written communication and Internet publishing.
Improve the quality of life in Oshkosh by showcasing local culture, promoting local events and ideas, and bringing the community together through a common focus.
Serve as an educational laboratory and workshop so that the reporting models it develops can be used and adapted in other places.

There has got to be a better way.

Here at OCNN we believe that the traditional media are not doing an adequate job in covering and delivering the news and that alternative approaches are needed to promote an informed and active citizenry.

There are several interrelated trends that got us here at OCNN thinking about finding a better way.

The first of these is simply that fewer people seem to care about the news. A 2000 survey by the Pew Center had this to say on that point:

Less than half of the public (45%) now says it enjoys keeping up with the news a great deal and just 48% say they follow national news closely most of the time. Both of these percentages represent a modest decline from two years ago, when 50% said they enjoyed keeping up with the news and 52% reported following national news closely most of the time. But the percentage of Americans saying they enjoy keeping up with the news has fallen steadily since the mid-1990s.

The 2004 version of the Pew survey showed an uptick in news interest, but even with the nation at war and still trying to figure out how to deal with the terrorist threat, most Americans have only a moderate interest in hard news.

Why don’t the traditional news media try harder to do something about this situation? We don’t know —but it certainly isn’t because of a lack of money. This chart provides comparative data about profit margins in the media industries and shows pretty clearly that these are very healthy businesses.

(In 2002, for example, newspapers reported operating margins of 21.1 percent. Even so they cut employment by almost 4.5 percent that year.)

Another indicator that traditional media have lost their way is the fact that they have had to admit in a number of high-profile cases that they are falling far short of their professed standards. Gannett, the company that owns our local newspaper here in Oshkosh, recently fired one of its star reporters at its flagship publication, USA Today, after discovering that this journalist, Jack Kelley, had:

fabricated substantial portions of at least eight major stories, lifted nearly two dozen quotes or other material from competing publications, lied in speeches he gave for the newspaper and conspired to mislead those investigating his work.

But Gannett is hardly alone. Consider how The New York Times essentially took back much of its reporting on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction after previously acknowledging problems with the reporting of Jayson Blair. In a front-page story The Washington Post acknowledged that it hadn’t done a very good job of reporting on the Bush administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

We don’t pretend to have all the answers to what ails the media, but we have a couple of ideas that we think will take us in the right direction. We believe that we can practice a better kind of journalism by being:

“Some things should be about money, some shouldn’t,” says Craig Newmark, a San Francisco programmer who started a highly successful noncommerical Web site called craigslist.

When the country’s Founding Fathers made the news business the only industry to enjoy the protection of the U.S. Constitution, they said their goals were to “form a more perfect union [and] promote the general welfare.” They didn’t say anything about guaranteeing high stock prices and outsized returns for investors in media companies.