Putting the "Non" in Newspaper Non-Profits



Over at Slate, media columnist Jack Shafer throws cold water on the latest fad among the save-our-precious-newspapers crowd: Going non-profit:

[B]efore we get out the party hats and noise-makers to celebrate the rise of nonprofit journalism, here's the bad news. In the current arrangement, we're substituting one flawed business model for another. For-profit newspapers lose money accidentally. Nonprofit news operations lose money *deliberately*. No matter how good the nonprofit operation is, it always ends up sustaining itself with handouts, and handouts come with conditions. […]

One general difference between investor-owned, advertising-supported journalism and its nonprofit cousin (which is often advertising-supported, too), is that the commercial product usually focuses on attracting and serving readers. There have been many for-profit owners in the history of commercial journalism-from William Randolph Hearst to convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon-for whom turning a profit with the publication was not among the highest goals. But the most successful, most heavily decorated, and longest-lived news outlets in the American journalism have been overtly commercial.

These and other good points can be found by reading the whole thing. Some follow-up observations:

* Newspaper lifers have been churning desperately through one Savior business model after another. I remember distinctly when the problem of my former hometown newspaper, the Santa Barbara News-Press, was that it was neglected by its distant corporate owner (the New York Times!), and if only they could get a local owner….That didn't work out so well. The local-billionaire fad gave way to the anti-Wall Street, just-take-it-private fad, but Sam Zell sandblasted the bloom off that rose. Now we're even seeing the let's-charge-readers-online model, which is a strategy so desperately and monumentally wrong-headed that I am now actively rooting for its widespread implementation, so that us lowly opinion mags gain market share even faster. The non-profit model, god bless it, is just the latest not-very-well-thought-out holographic plea to Obi-wan.

The two things newspaper survivors still can't wrap their heads around are 1) their revenue/staffing model at the high-water mark of the 1980s was roughly as sustainable as Hungary's political borders in the 1910s; and 2) therefore, so is the notion that any model of ownership will be benign, generous, and editorially hands-off. That this change is traumatic does not make it any less real.

* Mainstream newspaper culture, cemented into place by a half-century of relatively blissful double-digit profit margins and materially useful separation of editorial and advertising, is allergic in ways that cannot be overstated to any minor encroachment onto editorial independence. It is the immovable object aginst which the irresistable force of an atomizing market is smashing into. Any new model, no matter how temporally successful, will come up against this fact.

* As the editor of a magazine published by a non-profit, I can testify that those who mistake non-profit status with some kind of cushy endowment–and thus insulated from the ups and downs of both the wider market and the publication's specific market–are wildly mistaken. You gots to compete to get enough money to survive and thrive, and that takes both hard work and the kinds of interactions (i.e., actual conversations with actual board members) that most newspaper journalists are at best totally unfamiliar with, at worst instinctively hostile toward.

* All that said, more power to the non-profit journalism people! Legacy media, if it is to survive the transition, will do so through experimentation, especially on the business model level. And my real sense of optimism is in the non-profit start-up market, where rich weirdos who want to add to the pool of journalism in their own special way begin tinkering around with new ideas, in the realization that it just doesn't take that much money to have stronger impact, higher quality, and a more personally satisfying spin on things than can be found wheezing away at the local cubicle farm.