The New York Times… Endowment

Amid the flurry of NYT doomsday sayers (for one recent sample, see Michael Hirschorn’s piece in The Atlantic), at least one interesting idea has emerged from the gloom. Yesterday, the Times ran an op-ed suggesting that major American newspapers build endowments similar to that of the multi-million (billion?) dollar funds which America’s universities use to operate. Essentially, The New York Times would be re-fashioned as a huge non-profit.

The notion has some merit. First, imagine a Times not in dire need of shuttering foreign bureaus and offering buy-outs to its veteran reporters; indeed, perhaps investigative coverage could be increased with a combination of classic advertising/distribution revenue and money from a well-guarded endowment treasure chest. Then, imagine a newspaper not beholden to shareholders et al. to sensationalize (sell, sell, sell) the news it does run, whether in print or digital form. Finally, the essential function of a free press — that of protecting constitutional democracy (on this, see the New Yorker‘s reaction) and ferreting out fraud — will persevere, despite dwindling margins in advertising.

All this sound rosy, and it makes one wonder why it hasn’t been tried before. Are there any obvious drawbacks to transforming newspapers into foundations which produce news. I can think of one. If the Times became a non-profit, new rules would govern its tax exempt status, and that includes rules about political behavior. As the authors of the op-ed point out:

One constraint on an endowed institution is the prohibition… against trying to “influence legislation” or “participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.”

Would this prohibition end up functioning as a gag rule or an unintended ruler for fair and objective reporting? I’m not sure, though I worry a bit about the ability of, say, hotshot district attorneys to threaten a newspaper by challending its 501(c)(3) status. Then again, just as universities use tenure to insulate and protect the academic freedom of professors, perhaps newspapers could build legal safehavens for reporters which do strong investigative work, especially as it relates to government coverage.

So, any of you millionaires (billionaires?) out there going to make a move? The Times, and possibly our republic too, is depending on you.

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2 Responses to “The New York Times… Endowment”

  1. Bryan Says:

    Maureen Dowd knows where she’d like the money to come from.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/01/opinion/01dowd.html

  2. » Post-Paper Journalism I&D Blog Says:

    […] See Michael Hirschorn’s piece in the Jan/Feb Atlantic, as well as my post about a NYT endowment. So it was refreshing to read blogger Clay Shirky speculate about a future to journalism that […]