Sunday, February 10, 2008

Newspapers, the Non-Profit Way

It's no secret that newspapers' circulations are declining and that there is a need for a new standard of operation. Yes, a lot of print publications are reaching to go digital and move into new media but that still doesn't solve any problems for the ever decreasing rate of newspapers.

An interesting approach that I first heard about in my ethics class last semester has popped up recently in the February/March issue of the American Journalism Review and also online at the Poynter Institute. It's the non-profit approach.

While there are new non-profit, grant-funded news projects driving investigative and enterprise journalism, government funding is another route that newspapers may be traveling down. Nicholas Lemann, Columbia Journalism School Dean, sees direct government subsidies as a last resort for newspapers but sees a lot of promise in indirect subsidies from non-profit organizations.

Government funding clearly presents some sticky situations though and may lead to trespassing over the line of the First Amendment, as Amy Gahran states, "Uncle Sam probably wouldn't provide newspaper funding without very strong and uncomfortable strings attached."

But funding from non-profits may be a way for newspapers to maintain quality journalism--if done right. AJR's Carol Guensburg uses NPR as an example of how nonprofit journalism can work, noting that it gained a third of its revenue from non-profit funding in 2005.

The St. Petersburg Times is another example of how this model has worked. Even in a 2006 article by Forbes, attention was brought to the need for newspapers to find a different business model, highlighting the Times' non-profit approach.

The Times is owned by the Poynter Institute, which is a not-for-profit organization, therefore stripping the paper of its corporate ties. But as the article in Forbes points out, the relationship between the Times and Poynter is unique because the paper's owner and editor, Nelson Poynter (who-you guessed it-also founded the Poynter Institute) gave the paper away to the institute. This is not the norm as we all know lots of money is usually involved in buying or selling a newspaper. They're not just given away therefore making this type of affiliation a less attainable goal for other publications.

This relationship saves the Times from the pressure of worrying about producing a profit for its parent company but does not leave the Times without the problems among all publications today--cutting costs due to the loss of readers and the struggle to transition to new media.

Regardless, there may be something to learn from this type of model and it may become more standard practice as newspapers climb this uphill battle to stay afloat. One of the newest endeavors is ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom focused on investigative journalism with lead funding from the Sandler Foundation. With 24
working journalists dedicated to investigative reporting, their stories will be distributed to traditional news organizations, free of charge, for publication or broadcast. Paul Steiger, former managing editor at the Wall Street Journal, is serving as editor-in-chief of ProPublica.

It's an interesting time for journalism and newspapers will have to find a way to adapt. The non-profit approach may not solve all of its problems but it may be able to at least keep newspapers' heads above the water for a little while longer.

1 comment:

Dan Kennedy said...

I wrote about this issue last year for CommonWealth Magazine. If you're interested, the article is online here.