Join 3,523 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Sunday Paper Pledge Drive?
November 23, 2008 10:30 AM   Subscribe

Can nonprofit news models save journalism? The advertising-supported, for-profit institutional model of journalism (skip this ad) is on the wane. Except for a few large and successful outlets, investment in comprehensive reporting has suffered from a shrinking bottom line, even as the hoped-for development of citizen journalism has been generally underwhelming. But some see a solution taking shape in not-for-profit, independent, citizen-supported online news organizations that would employ skilled professional journalists. Pointing to the encouraging recent growth of NPR and PBS as news outlets, many industry thinkers are starting to agree that "The only way to save journalism is to develop a new model that finds profit in truth, vigilance, and social responsibility." Editors are beginning to experiment with models like that of Paul Stieger's ProPublica (a sort of reporting clearinghouse), Geoff Dougherty's ChiTown Daily News, The NYC Center for an Urban Future's City Limits, and Scott Lewis' Voice of San Diego. Great idea - will it work?
posted by Miko (35 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think it's a fantastic idea. Why not expand the PBS and NPR models to newspapers, indeed?

The only problem I can see arising from this is with regards to television: if the "real" news moved off the networks, newsfotainment would still remain, and I think the public at large would be inclined to stick with network material. Of course, you can't make people get informed, and the sorts of people likely to stick with the easy-to-digest nuggets aren't necessarily driven to inform themselves anyway.

One sub-plus: enough talk of bloggers being the "last bastions of real journalism" or whatever.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:40 AM on November 23, 2008


is current.tv profitteering? i should assume so, even though it seems promising.
posted by eustatic at 11:00 AM on November 23, 2008


The concept that serious investigative journalism needed to be supported by individuals selling cars and renting apartments (the classified ads) and chain-store circulars in the Sunday edition gets sillier the more you think about it, but that's just how the 'something for everybody' newspaper evolved. The original concept of "web portals" were very newspaper-like and fell early to 'buffet-style' web browsing. The challenge of paying for things that were previously ad-supported (which Google AdSense will never adequately support) is probably THE most daunting, yet compelling, challenges of the New Media Era...
posted by wendell at 11:00 AM on November 23, 2008


Don't forgot http://spot.us being done in Berkeley.

I heard somewhere an idea that Google should buy the New York Times and run it as a charitable trust. I've got to say, it sounds better every time I've heard it.

I'm skeptical to the reports that wrriten, investigative journalism is dead. Here in the Research Triangle, we have an alt-weekly called The Independent that does a fair job at investigative journalism from a somewhat liberal perspective. A new newspaper just opened in nearby Carrboro, focusing on the issues of that town. Both are local, distributed freely, and doing much better than the local McClatchy paper.
posted by Vhanudux at 11:01 AM on November 23, 2008


The key word in the whole FPP is "employ" if what you want is real muckraking, and not just bloviating about Sarah Palin's latest gaffe or the Ten Most Outrageous Robots in Sci-Fi!!! Writing pieces of investigative journalism like this or this took me about two months each of full-time reporting, writing, and editing by smart editors, and that's precisely the kind of in-depth stuff that is going away soon unless ad-supported magazines survive or outfits like ProPublica can save us.
posted by digaman at 11:04 AM on November 23, 2008 [5 favorites]


It my belief that Newspapers are still making money. I believe the problem is they are publicly traded. Privately owned papers are doing much better, seem to be getting it, and can be a lot more nimble when it comes to adapting.
posted by cjorgensen at 11:10 AM on November 23, 2008


"National Public Radio is a workable model for nonprofit journalism."
posted by Zambrano at 11:14 AM on November 23, 2008


I heard somewhere an idea that Google should buy the New York Times and run it as a charitable trust. I've got to say, it sounds better every time I've heard it.

The New York Times is a giant corporation, it had a market cap of 2 billion dollars in September (down to 750 million today, and 7 billion in 2003. Heh). So buying the new NYT would be a huge acquisition.

Also, why should they run it as a charitable trust? Since when is Google a Charity?
posted by delmoi at 11:14 AM on November 23, 2008


"National Public Radio is a workable model for nonprofit journalism."

To be fair, there have always been and always will be incidents of unethical behavior in journalism, no matter the outlet. Judging the entire funding model by discrete incidents of unethical behavior would doom pretty much every journalistic medium to failure.
posted by Miko at 11:22 AM on November 23, 2008


Anyone interested in this ought to read the series the Online Journalism Review just did profiling a series of local online news organizations, many of them non-profits.
posted by enn at 11:35 AM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


It's true there is a huge void now in local, community coverage that the not-for-profits are trying to fill. This is the space that newspapers used to occupy. So it's important to understand how we got here.

There's an inherent tension between journalism and capitalism. Journalism, as an ideal, is essentially humanist. When it's done right, it's also very expensive, which puts it at odds with capitalism's relentless quest for maximizing profits.

For much of the 20th century the tension between journalism and capitalism wasn't really an issue. But then in the 1970s, along came Gannett Corp., the little guys who were determined to show Wall Street that all those newspapers could make lots of money. Newspapers became public companies, answerable to shareholders, and a wave of industry consolidation followed. Costs were slashed at most newspapers and the big newspaper chains were earning 20 percent profits year after year.

Quality suffered. Investigative reporting, which is time-consuming and expensive but also makes newspapers very relevant, was pushed aside. Foreign bureaus were reduced or eliminated. And the senior, experienced people who knew the communities or the industries they covered were shoved out and replaced with young staffers who came cheap. This significantly dumbed down the coverage. And newspapers shrank their news holes to cut costs even further and used wire service fodder to fill the rest. So newspapers lost their vitality and they soon stopped attracting new readers.

Journalists and editors were part of the problem too. Newsrooms are riven by titanic egos. Newspapers had (and still have) silly internal rules that sometimes lead them to ignore or downplay relevant stories because someone else had it first. And there is an awful herd mentality at work in the industry, which has a lot to do with the awful, relentlessly speculative stories that have become the hallmark of modern political journalism.

The Internet really was the death blow. Craigslist gutted classified ads, and newspapers were very slow to realize what was happening. They were used to having the voice of authority: We will tell you what you need to know. The Internet of course is all about dialogue, as this site clearly shows. It's interesting to think about MetaFilter as a newspaper of sorts. It provides nothing but a blank canvas, and we do the rest. Yet here you are reading away.

But where was I? Ah yes. The biggest problem is that young people don't read newspapers, and young readers are your future subscriber base. So the future of newspapers looks very bleak.

Big newspaper chain stocks are in the dumps. Wall Street analysts have been negative on the industry for years and short-sellers are crawling all over the newspaper chains. The irony is that as bad as the state of the newspaper industry is today, it's still profitable. Just not as profitable as Wall Street would like.

So, yes, not-for-profit journalism is the obvious next step. And in San Diego where I live it's been very effective at filling the void as the town's once-dominant newspaper has shrunk in the face of a brutal economic setting. There are other examples. Minnesota public radio is amazing.

But the truth is that not-for-profit journalism is being financed by wealthy individuals. NPR got $200 million from the widow of the founder of McDonald's The Sandlers who fund ProPublica made their money by selling mortgages and even had a role in the demise of Wachovia. Is that a sustainable model?

Perhaps the future for not-for-profit journalism will depend on cooperation, on forming a nationwide network that can fill the void once that our dying national newspapers used to fill. And journalists need to return to their humanist ideals and work to serve their readers, not themselves or their shareholders.
posted by up in the old hotel at 11:41 AM on November 23, 2008 [10 favorites]


ot-for-profit journalism is being financed by wealthy individuals.

I think it is; not-for-profit almost everything is financed (largely) by wealthy individuals. The pyramid formed by leading wealthy individuals giving enormous gifts, followed by less wealthy individuals at every tier giving proportionally smaller gifts, works for a lot of institutions offering public services, from colleges to museums to aid charities. We know the funding model works; it just hasn't been widely applied to this particular service yet. What news organizations like Pro Publica will have to do is to make sure it develops revenue streams that supplement enormous donors' gifts, so as not to be wholly dependent on enormous donors. NPR news is a good example of that leverage of a large donation to multiply the effect by attracting smaller donations.

And the existence of wealthy donors doesn't, in itself, create conditions of bias. The way gifts are transferred to the institution and the codified relationships between institution and donor can be structured so as to minimize or eliminate the possibility of donor control - so, in theory, ProPublica could report honestly on the demise of Wachovia, if need be. PResumably if a wealthy donor is attracted enough to the idea of journalism as public service, they are willing to endorse the free operation of the press institutions they fund. The idea of a conflict there isn't terribly new, since advertisers (like banks) have often found themselves the subjects of investigative reporting. It does call for thought and planning, though, in the structure of nonprofit news entities - it would seem that aiming for a broad base of support and multiple donor pools would be much healthier, journalistically speaking, than a few major donors doing most of the support. With only a few, and with bad governance, you'd end up with an industry rag or an axegrinding fishwrap (not that that also isn't within the tradition of some of the nation's greatest papers in history).
posted by Miko at 11:55 AM on November 23, 2008


What is entirely irritating about the Times is that they ignore whole areas of alternative media out there: namely, papers like NYC's own Indypendent and the model of the overarching network of Independent Media Centers.
posted by history is a weapon at 11:57 AM on November 23, 2008


There are few things as depressing as working in a rapidly dying industry, and that's what this one is, without question. It's even more depressing when the management are completely incompetent at managing the decline, and absolutely unwilling to accept any reduction in profit margins that traditionally have been exceptionally high, regardless of industry.

One paper I know of is at death's door in terms of staffing, and still making 20% returns. But that's by cutting meat and bone, not fat. Its future is bleak.

Not-for-profits, however, aren't just a perhaps-they'll-work: they already do. The Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian, is a not-for-profit set up exclusively to ensure the Guardian survives. It uses other cash cows to subsidise it and the Observer, when that's required. But will that model work to support an entire market? I'd be surprised.
posted by bonaldi at 12:26 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Can nonprofit news models save journalism?

No?
posted by Artw at 12:56 PM on November 23, 2008


I'd love to see the establishment of a PBS Newschannel in the US. In my town there are now 3 or 4 PBS channels ("Create," and a couple others). As I mentioned in a previous post on this subject, I think such a move is well overdue.

I also like the idea of community news. But I do have a complaint about many community news outlets, however:

They're boring.

history is a weapon points out that Independent Media Centers have sprung up in the US. There's one in my town (Champaign, IL), which publishes something called, The Public "I".

Everytime I see it, I start to think that (although I'm on the left myself) I wish Rupert Murdoch would buy up and remake more left newspapers. They'd be half as progressive, but would probably end up do more good by reaching three times as many people. Becasue they'd reach wider audiences by simply working hard to be entertaining.

Community news is often written by earnest but long-winded types, with no one in a position to make necessary editorial cuts. Everyone's interested in speaking the truth, without much consideration of the potential audience. Through an ideological uniformity that makes them predictable, and by excluding things like movie showtimes, cartoons, humor, or reviews of music/entertainment, etc., these papers limit their own effectiveness.

Now, I say this out of love. I know that the Public I for example has done awesome work dealing with the county prisons here in Central Illinois, for example.

But I do often wish that the pious and pure community media would somehow acquire the ferocious hunger for human eyeballs that is the hallmark of the profit-driven media. And if any community-media types are reading this, I hope that you never stop thinking about how to appeal to as large an audience as possible. And that includes fun, dammit.
posted by washburn at 1:00 PM on November 23, 2008


Journalism That Matters.
posted by salishsea at 1:01 PM on November 23, 2008


Seattle news site Crosscut is switching to non-profit. Around here we think it's funny since none of us know anyone in the news business, paper or blog, that is close to profitable.
posted by dw at 1:22 PM on November 23, 2008


Just not as profitable as Wall Street would like.

That little sentence pretty much explains a lot of what's wrong in this economy in general, and not just newspapers.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:22 PM on November 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


without much consideration of the potential audience.

Ah, the audience. Journalists often forget about the audience.

Why is newspaper and wire-service journalism written in such a stilted way? Who writes like that? Is that really good writing? Whatever happened to story-telling? The front page is one big bummer, largely because the stories are poorly written. Good stories take time and thought.

It's important to remember that sports, comics, crosswords and jumble is what keeps many subscribers from fleeing. Dave Barry is immensely popular. Readers still like to have fun, even if newspapers don't. They also long for connection, for things that are relevant to their lives.
posted by up in the old hotel at 1:39 PM on November 23, 2008


Why is newspaper and wire-service journalism written in such a stilted way? Who writes like that? Is that really good writing? Whatever happened to story-telling? The front page is one big bummer, largely because the stories are poorly written. Good stories take time and thought.

Well, the "stilted" writing you don't like is probably a combination of AP Style and more broadly standard inverted pyramid writing. This is in no small part a legacy of older printing press requirements where the page make-up editorial staff had the need to cut off the end of a story to make it fit around the ads, so the beginning had to contain a summary. It remains useful because even on the web where column-inches aren't counted, people skim.

heard somewhere an idea that Google should buy the New York Times and run it as a charitable trust.

There was a pretty good proposal something like this, though I'm not sure of the players. I can't find it right now, though.

The St. Petersburg Times (in Florida) is owned by the Poynter Institute, after the founding family transferred it to the institute rather than have it be taken over by Texas billionaire Robert M. Bass^. That's probably the only American example of a viable big-city newspaper in this mold (as opposed to an alternative weekly, etc.)
posted by dhartung at 2:20 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Dude, wire-service stories are not about showing off yer unstoppable writing skillz -- they're "just the facts, ma'am," which can be repurposed and cut and pasted to fill whatever space is available. Heaven forbid a really good prose stylist had to write wire copy.

Whatever happened to story-telling?

If you're looking for it in wire copy, I'm not surprised that you're not finding it! Good storytelling is where it always was in journalism -- in the feature well of major magazines like the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Harper's, the Atlantic, and (cough) Wired (where I write). Trying to tell good stories is what people like me do for a living, and it takes time and money. Wire copy is more like an endless blog by a polite, halfwit robot, responding to breaking news. If you want good storytelling, please do subscribe to your favorite magazine. People like me are praying that people like you do so, or we'll soon be out of a job.
posted by digaman at 2:24 PM on November 23, 2008 [6 favorites]


> Why is newspaper and wire-service journalism written in such a stilted way?

First, because there's a formal structure reports are expected to follow, the inverted pyramid. Second, it's because writing for the wire is expected to be as terse as possible while still conveying all details; it's up to the newspapers' editing staff to make it a readable story, and in doing so they'll prune the information they don't need, details that may have changed (due to subsequent wire bulletins) and make it fit the amount of space available on paper.

Now that any newspaper can easily redirect their AP or Reuters -provided firehoses onto their website and reserve their dwindling editing staff to deal with local coverage, you get to see what generations of copy desks had to put up with.
posted by ardgedee at 2:28 PM on November 23, 2008


Still can't find the specifics of that trust idea, but here's PressThink on the general idea of community-owned newspapers.
posted by dhartung at 2:29 PM on November 23, 2008


"National Public Radio is a workable model for nonprofit journalism."

Barely. Journalism should not be dependent on charity, even so, NPR and PBS consistently provide high-quality journalism.

I believe that the best model for broadcast journalism, in a truly democratic and prosperous nation, is a publicly-funded but arms-length national broadcaster. BBC, Deutsche Welle, Radio Nederlandn NHK, CBC are all good examples.

Would this model work for newspapers? I don't think so... BUT where there IS a national broadcast organisation with a respected news dept., the bar is raised, so that private for-profit news organizations like newspapers have to be comparably accurate and trustworthy to stay competitive, and they have to ferret out exclusive and engaging stories to keep their audience.

I also think that in that scenario, newspapers would be more free to develop their own voice, in terms of the commentary and op-ed pieces they develop. Principles and leadership are things that I think have gone missing from newspapers lately as they scramble for profits.
posted by Artful Codger at 2:44 PM on November 23, 2008


Grrr. Radio Nederland, NHK,
posted by Artful Codger at 2:45 PM on November 23, 2008


Unfortunately, I'm all too familiar with the inverted pyramid. I used to be one of those "polite, halfwit robots" that wrote wire service copy. You're right, dhartung, it's a legacy of hot type printing presses when space was at a premium.

But there's really no good reason today why every story has to be 700 words or less (for AP) or 16 column inches or less (for newspapers). It's just a tradition that the AP is determined not to let die, and newspapers don't do much better. It's another example of outmoded thinking.

Storytelling shouldn't be something you only find in magazines.
posted by up in the old hotel at 2:54 PM on November 23, 2008


But there's really no good reason today why every story has to be 700 words or less (for AP) or 16 column inches or less (for newspapers).

Maybe to get the facts of an important event to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible?

Wordsmithy is best left to pieces where the time can and should be afforded to them.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:00 PM on November 23, 2008


Sometimes you read a newspaper because you actually want news.

Imagine you'd passed out early on election day, picked up a paper (or, okay, searched Google News) the next morning, and had to hunt through pages of captivating scene-setting and characterization to find out whether your favorite candidate/ballot initiative/whatever had won or lost. Frustrating, no?

When I want a story I read a book (or, yeah, something like the NYT magazine section, which is a joy to linger over on Sunday morning with a cup of coffee). But when I just want to know what happened, I'm quite pleased that I can scan those 700 dry, information-dense words and get what I need.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:11 PM on November 23, 2008


Can nonprofit news models save journalism?

No.
As Artful Codger said: Journalism should not be dependent on charity.
But it's interesting to see that a lot of people care about journalism.
Do people seem to be tired of being informed?
I don't think so.
As long as there are people to read or watch or listen to stories about what is going on in their world, journalism will find a place on any medium.


So there is no crisis of journalism.
There is only an upcoming crisis of print based mass media.
Looks like it can't be avoided.
A lot of people are working on new models. Jeff Jarvis wrote a good round up of the state of the alternatives. Is there any definitive answer? Not yet. But, as Jarvis says, we must explore and experiment with many models to find and invent what will work.

It's an interesting time.
posted by bru at 5:15 PM on November 23, 2008


As long as there are people to read or watch or listen to stories about what is going on in their world, journalism will find a place on any medium.


So there is no crisis of journalism.
There is only an upcoming crisis of print based mass media.


Wrong. Journalism needs paid for. A newsroom is expensive, and a good newsroom -- the one that pays for the sort-of long-term investigative journalism that is at the heart of why we value reporting -- costs even more.

But the print media doesn't work by selling news, because people don't really want or need to pay for it. It works by selling readers to advertisers. That's where the money is. And for a whole host of reasons, online advertising commands a far lower fee than print advertising. So unless you're going to have 10 times the readership online that you do in print and then some, the sums don't add up.

Journalism is one of those things that can die economically even while there's a demand for it. And regardless of that, the "print based mass media" is where the vast majority of news reporting comes from. A crisis in it is a crisis in journalism.
posted by bonaldi at 6:17 PM on November 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


So unless you're going to have 10 times the readership online that you do in print and then some, the sums don't add up.

Didn't you see the comments above? Google can just pay for it all. Problem solved!
posted by gsteff at 8:13 PM on November 23, 2008


sad, beautiful storytelling in today's New York Times.
posted by digaman at 8:46 PM on November 23, 2008


Wow, you linked to an article out of UC Irvine. Zot, zot, zot.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:52 PM on November 23, 2008


“Principles and leadership are things that I think have gone missing from newspapers lately as they scramble for profits.”

I agree. And from journalism in general - broadcast, et.al.
I don’t know that allowing ‘market forces’ to monopolize or dictate interests in what is ostensibly an element of the public interest - the ‘fourth estate’ is such a good idea.
I think the repeal of the fairness doctrine did more than just open the airwaves. I think there’s been a degradation of the idea of serving the public in the media in general.

If anything I’d suggest greater professionalism is neccessary. Not that the folks at NPR aren’t pros. But some costs do need to be borne generally - e.g. your water system, sewers, etc. - and I’d put news in that category.
You need something independent from the government - yet very professional and organized.
I agree too that competion should be based on accuracy and objectivity, not on the readership model, etc.
I heard something about the Bloomberg model a bit ago - they don’t print stories their readership wouldn’t care about.
Seems to me a non-for-profit enterprise might run into the same sort of problem.
There’s a place for NPR of course, but that’s because they’re not in competition for funds by other, similar, organizations.

Somewhere that objectivity might get lost. Hell, it’s mostly gone now except for a rare appearance. The WSJ (it’s editorial page aside of course) used to be pretty solid on that score. Now....?
posted by Smedleyman at 12:10 PM on November 24, 2008


« Older In 1972 the Club of Rome published the famous book...  |  Christians AGAINST Cartoons!... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments