The Case For Nonprofit Journalism?

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Newsroom by Flickr user victoriapeckham
"Newsroom" by Flickr user victoriapeckham

I was having a conversation with my good friend (and former boss) Rush Kidder just the other day, and the subject turned to journalism — specifically, the idea that as newspapers tank that foundations ought to step in and shore up journalism. Newspapers can become nonprofit entities.

This is an idea that has a number adherents among my journalism friends. I thought I would lay out what I think is probably the strongest argument in favor.

News vs. Journalism

“News” has always existed, since recorded history. People have always wanted to know what’s new.

“Journalism,” on the other hand — that is, a profession with a strong set of specific values to which everyone agrees — is a recent phenomenon, dating only to the late 19th century. This distinction between News and Journalism figures in Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s important essay, What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect.

While the goal of News is to tell people what’s new, the goal of Journalism, according to Kovach and Rosenstiel, is to “provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”

Until recently, you might say we were in a “golden age” of Journalism.

Also until very recently, you could argue that people were buying News, but were getting Journalism. But the business model that newspapers were using to deliver that Journalism (based on classified ads and display ads) had not yet broken. So everything was working. People bought News, and got Journalism, which looked close enough that they didn’t complain.

The Hole Only Journalism Can Fill

But now, that business model is broken. Free classifieds coupled with easy online availability has killed it. News has now migrated online and into various other distribution channels. And it’s been decoupled from Journalism as it has migrated. People find out what’s new in lots of different ways, without the help of Journalists.

For many things, this is perfectly adequate. I don’t need a Journalist to tell me who won the ball game, I can find out from my Twitter peeps or from a realtime score on a website.

But there’s still a hole that only Journalism can fill. One obvious one is investigative reporting. While in some instances individual bloggers have been able to break big and important stories, in most cases it takes a long time — and resources — to do a proper job of investigating. There’s also an important context-setting function Journalism can play, by being the long memory that helps make sense of what is happening.

And, most importantly, News sees its readers as customers, while Journalism sees its readers as citizens. I don’t mean individual people see it that way. I mean that News is in the business of giving people what they want — knowledge of what’s new. Journalism, on the other hand, wants to give people what they ought to know about (in addition to the news).

Is Journalism Commercially Viable?

A mutual friend of mine and Rush’s once said that the job of an editor is to know what people ought to know, and to make them want to know it.

Problem is, there is not yet a decent business model for creating and delivering Journalism.

That’s where philanthropy comes in. It is the duty of philanthropy to support that which is a public good but is not commercially viable or able to be self-sustaining.

While it is not clear that Journalism is commercially viable, it is clear that Journalism provides an important public good. Journalism is not the simple conveyance of News; it is something more.

It is also very iffy that Journalism could be commercially viable when it competes with News. (In other words, to the extent commercial models exist for News delivery, they aren’t as attractive for Journalism delivery.)

Supporting Journalism On Paper

News delivery is not necessarily the best use of the resources of a printing press. I get four newspapers delivered to my door every morning. By the time I pick them up, I know what they contain. However, paper delivery of Journalism may well be a good use of those same resources, as it provides permanence, long-form friendliness, and builds in a longer time horizon which can improve the quality of the Journalism.

Given this, why wouldn’t philanthropy see it as a good investment to keep some print newspapers afloat? Perhaps there would be a small handful of nationally-focused papers that are kept afloat in this way.

But you could also make an argument that some cities ought to have a Journalism resource of their own, too. Why couldn’t community foundations step in to fill that void? Certainly, you could make a strong argument that the state capitals ought to have such a source of Journalism.

Yes, But . . .

One last thing. I am not entirely sure I buy this line of argument, primarily because I am optimistic that today’s pain will drive new creative responses that we haven’t thought of yet. It’s happening more quickly in News delivery, but things like ProPublica give me hope on the Journalism side, too.  Soemhow, I feel like resorting to foundation funding for Journalism is throwing in the towel (maybe that’ll be a later essay).

However, there is a strong argument that it is the right thing.

Perhaps, in the end, there will be a much richer variety of News and Journalism outlets — some nonprofit, some for-profit, some volunteer.

9 thoughts on “The Case For Nonprofit Journalism?”

  1. Brad… I enjoy your thoughts on the difference between news and journalism – I would describe it as the difference between news and information. News I can get anywhere, it’s a commodity, but journalism – information – is specific and (the best of it is) unique.

    There will always be a need for print as a medium. The “message” defines the value of the medium. If Roger Ebert only printed his movie reviews in the paper, would he eventually become irrelevant? Or would movie buffs buy that day’s paper to read what Roger Ebert has to say? I recently recommended to the Chicago Sun-Times that they make a dramatic reduction to the content they put on their web site in order to drive readers to the print edition… maybe just tease the reader online and push them to print where ad rates are substantially higher. They titled their head, and went, “huh?”

    I also suggested that they give ads away for free, but to include a link with each one. Instead of $2,000 for a quarter page ad, the advertiser would need to pay $25.00 per link entry, up to a cap of $3,000.00.

    I recently tried to start a new print newspaper in Chicago comprised entirely of blogs (read: information, or (a casually defined version of) journalism) called The Printed Blog. We ultimately did not succeed, but the reasons were of our own making. The model was sound. We had amazing content, world-class photography, syndicated content from Yelp, Eventful and others, 10,000 people in our various social networks, full global recognition in a matter of a few months, and we were successful at selling ads in a hyper local model. AND, most importantly, we could have been wildly profitable, even with printing and manual distribution.

    The reason we didn’t succeed were firmly of our own making, but the model was sound. I can basically guarantee you that surviving print newspapers will soon be “reverse publishing” bloggers.

    Anyway, nice comments, and I’m going to start following your work.

    Founder and Publisher
    The Printed Blog

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of nonprofit media and have been pitching it to my journalist friends (none of whom actually own a newspaper though, so it’s not much help). But isn’t the St. Petersburg newspaper a non-profit owned by the Poynter Institute? And isn’t it struggling, too? I don’t have any more details, but I’m definitely curious.

    My biggest frustration with media today is that newspapers, TV stations, etc. are mostly owned by big corporations who are beholden to stockholders and their own executives’ big salaries. So media cut staff, cut or even eliminate investigative reporting, cut the newshole all to meet the bottom line. Moving to a nonprofit system eliminates that issue and leaves media to focus on their communities, which is where they should be focusing anyway.

    My former editor, Steven Smith, ponders similar issues on his blog, We have discussed this nonprofit idea before, but he isn’t sold on it.

  3. Thanks, Josh and Aaron. I agree that eventually print editions will start reverse publishing FROM online more and more. (Many print editions already do that with some advice columns, taking an online chat and turning it into the week’s column a couple of days later.)

    Aaron, I — like Steve — am not entirely sure I am sold on the idea, I was trying to make a good case. I am sort of convincing myself, but I still have a few misgivings . . . .

  4. I would say that the job of a great editor is to know what the people have a right to know and how to finance a publication without compromising it’s ethics. And that, while both news and journalism can be seen as two different things with far-reaching extremes, they have quite a middle-ground of overlap. This is where competitiveness in the free-market comes into play, where journalism (even if only some)is forced to report the news in the most unbiased way, while maintaining a human touch. This requires a true talent.

    As for the nonprofit, media outlets already exist, right? Some do better then others and there are definitely people/businesses that find it to be a healthy investment; however, I fear that going extreme in any direction is a move. A risk of losing too many on the “other side”…

  5. This is a very interesting mental exercise, but I can understand why you would be uncertain about committing to the notion of philanthropic foundations “buying into” the newspaper business. The construct you describe is replete with uncertainties and riddled with “givens” which, at best, are only assumptions. I’m just old enough to remember people making the same arguments about radio when television became widely popular. However, here we are sixty years later still listen to our radios. My belief is that the newspaper industry is not dying but is in a state of transitional flux. Once the transition is made and market shares redistributed, I think we’ll still be able to read our newspapers, and “journalism” will have found its new home(s).

    I enjoyed your essay, Brad. Well worth the read.

  6. Good piece. Thanks. Of coure Pro Publica (and other nonprofit investigative journalism shops) are supported, at least in part, by foundations.
    There are pros and cons to nonprofit ownership of newspapers, and although the idea that a nonprofit newspaper might be fully endowed, as has been suggested, is impractical, the mixed funding streams that NPR and other nonprofit media have developed could be adapted to journalism.
    It seems to me that, as Pro Publica and others are demonstrating, it is possible to “do” journalism from a nonprofit base. However, the successful delivery of the product is still a problem — print on paper, broadcast, or online. I’m not sure the stories get the traction that they deserve and that we, as citizens, need.

  7. Ben, that’s an excellent point about the traction. I think there is an important distinction to be made between news gathering and news delivery. It may be that the organizational (and individual) skills required for good newsgathering are not at all the same as the skills, capacities, and sensibilities required for good news delivery.

  8. Consider the rules of the nonprofit business model–the rules that are completely different from a for-profit business model (courtesy Nonprofit Finance Fund).

    Each of the following is true for businesses. FALSE for nonprofits:

    Cash is “liquid.”
    Price is determined by cost, consumer, competition.
    The consumer buys the product.
    Growth must eventually generate profits or the
    business fails.
    Investment in infrastructure is seen as necessary;
    overhead is a regular cost of business.
    Profits drop to the bottom line, are used in the
    business, and/or get distributed to shareholders.

    Interesting idea about journalism taking on the nonprofit model. But the implications of moving over will not make it easier. These rules are so standard, so self-evident, so understood as truths in business. But they are absolutely the opposite in nonprofit finance. It’s pretty hard for anyone who hasn’t “lived” the very weird! nonprofit rules to truly understand what this sort of solution might mean (board members through the years come to mind). So while this idea is potentially promising, this isn’t an easy fix!

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