Thoughtful Words: Can Journalism Survive on a Non-Profit Basis

As traditional journalism (meaning: newspapers) fade away, one rescue scheme is to convert them into non-profits. Oops, they are already “non-profits” under an ordinary definition of that term, I guess I mean “not for profits,” that is, charities.

There’s been some interesting research (by foundations) about what’s going on and whether it’s viable. Reporting out of NPQ, Ruth McCambridge gives a thoughtful round up, with links to reports from Pew and Knight, two foundations who have been involved with this issue.

“…[An] excellent recent Pew study, “Nonprofit Journalism: A Growing but Fragile Part of the U.S. News System,” looked at 172 nonprofit news sites and found that many of these organizations still relied to a fairly significant extent on only a few sources, including grant funding from a foundation or major donor.

Now, the Knight Foundation is preparing to publish another study, titled “Finding a Foothold: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability.” This report, scheduled for release in October, has made a bit of a breakthrough in that it shows patterns of revenue by type of operation, along with other comparative data. As one participant in the roundtable said, this type of information is like gold to those struggling to make sense of an emerging enterprise model.

The journalism groups that attended and were under discussion had annual budgets that were as small as $165,000 (Oakland Local) and as large as $10 million (ProPublica and Center for Investigative Reporting). They were divided generally into three categories—national, statewide, and local—with a few outliers, like NPQ, that addressed particular communities of interest, and more established groups, like NPR. But most were fairly new, and primarily online, publishers. Some engaged heavily in investigative work, but these seemed to be organizations with larger capital investments from individuals or foundations. A number of foundations were also represented, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Knight Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation.

Later in the same piece, an interesting observation on how the results of investigative journalism might now be “chunked.”

So, the traditional method of doing an investigative project is to work, work, work, work, work, gestate, gestate, gestate, give birth to this big thing when it comes out, and then go take a nap, right? That’s fine, but what you’re seeing more and more of, and partly out of the same necessity, is the rolling investigation kind of thing. The work is not less important, and you don’t do less. The impact isn’t different in the end. But you’re breaking this into pieces as you go along, and there’s a sustained constant hit.

Crudely put, the Internet makes what once were “scoops” into a “beat.” (Although Watergate was surely a “beat” and a rolling investigation.) Still, does point out (the obvious) that the rhythm of reporting is changed wholesale by digital media, print newsrooms no longer scale in the “supply chain” as the chunks aren’t daily, but instantaneous. And the “desks” that have to be staffed, are feeding twitter streams, not the next day’s first print edition.

McCambridge quotes Michael Maness, Knight’s Foundation (big funder of new journalism) saying (journalists at least) not become “addicted to the continuous now.” That horse has left the stable, however.

Tombstone Daily Epitaph
The now very apt title of an Arizona paper (scan of an 1889 front page).

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