Thursday, March 26, 2009

Newspapers as non-profits?

We are just throwing a lot of stuff up on this blog at the moment, hoping that something will stick and conversations will bubble. But in the next few weeks, we are also hoping to get some guest essays, a few interviews, more of your thoughts. Point is, some order is probably coming.

Today’s thought comes from Geoff, who is editor for Where I Stand. He wrote this interesting article for his blog about whether not online journalism can survive the death of newspapers. One of the topics in the essay is one he expands upon in an email: Should newspapers, in fact, be non-profits?

“I wrote an essay last month that questioned why the default funding model for journalism has always been for-profit. As if reporting the truth and profits were mutually beneficial pursuits. The business of journalism isn't like the business of, say, retail. True, competitive culture partly drives the pursuit of scoops, leads and sources, but was Woodward thinking about a sales commission during all those 2 a.m. rendezvous with Deep Throat? No. And is the New York Times Iraq bureau really an efficient and streamlined use of its budget? Well, no.

“But it exists for a larger purpose than bottom lines. There's a consensus that societies are better off with a fully-functioning press yet we're willing to jeopardize it in the name of competition. Just doesn't seem like a reasonable compromise.”

I don’t know enough about non-profits co really dive into this question ... but it sure seems like there is something here. An editor once told me: “Everybody wants the news, but nobody wants to own it.” I always thought that was a weird thing to say. Now, I wonder.


  1. "And is the New York Times Iraq bureau really an efficient and streamlined use of its budget? Well, no."

    Really? Why not?

    The NY Times builds its business on the widespread perception that they deliver the most complete and thoughtful journalism available anywhere. That's their brand every bit as much as Coca-Cola and McDonald's have a brand.

    If they didn't spend money on reporting from Iraq, they would undermine their brand. The money they lose on reporting from Iraq is dwarfed by the money they would lose if they were perceived to be less aggressive than other major outlets in their newsgathering. Putting aside the value to society of having NY Times reporters in Baghdad, the expense makes sense purely from the perspective of brand building/maintenence.

  2. NPR is a great example of not-for-profit journalism. There's news, opinion, features, investigative reporting, interviews, conversation, music. Very much an audio 'newspaper.' Reds and Blues each insist coverage is biased toward the other color. So, a newspaper with balance, maybe.

    NPR is not-for-profit. Not-for-profit with a hefty contribution from the government, but a driving need to raise funds to meet their budget needs. They hammer the airwaves with pleas and persuasion, generally for a couple of weeks, a couple of times a year. Does it work? It appears to. No one is getting rich, which we can know for certain because not-for-profits have to make their P&L statement available to the public. (My personal exposure to NFPs, other than contributions, ended 30-some years ago. There have certainly been some changes.)

    It seems like a tough road to me, news disbursers offering logo mugs for enough cash to persevere another six months. In tough times, contributions are the easiest expense to shake free of. In flush times all the NFPs are bidding loudly for the same buck. I think I'd hate to see it develop like this.

  3. Well, I agree with your main point here, but I have to nitpick your claim that "Reds and Blues each insist (NPR's) coverage is biased toward the other color." Maybe so, but the blues who insist that are absolutely delusional. All my left-wing friends listen to NPR, that's its bias, one I don't think it tries to hide from.

    But hey, I don't mean that in a pejorative way; I get all my news from The Daily Show, another place that wears its left-wing bias proudly.