Tuesday, March 30th, 2010...7:52 pm

The Non-Profit News Straw Man

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I know, I know.  This is a tired conversation.  But my friend John Bracken tweeted a link to a post on Alan Mutter’s blog bashing the idea that non-profit business models would save journalism.  While he’s probably right, I had a couple of problems with his argument that ultimately helped shape what role I think money (or business models) plays in this conversation so I thought I’d address them:

1) Why is it assumed that the cost of mainstream media is the cost of journalism?  Mutter says: “The math, as detailed below, shows that it would take $88 billion – or nearly a third of all the $307.7 billion donated to charity in 2008 – to fund the reporting still being done at America’s seriously straitened newspapers” and “if you wanted to sustain the current level of newspaper coverage by replacing for-profit funding with non-profit dollars, the typical approach would be to raise an endowment that would be invested conservatively to produce an annual return of 5%.”  Um, who says we want to sustain the current level (or at least format) of newspaper coverage?  And why would we want to do it so simplistically as to replace every for-profit dollar with a non-profit one?  I think there are a lot of imaginative people out there who can envision running a viable news organization on significantly less than what traditional media outlets spend today.  I understand the argument that “it costs a lot of money to maintain a Baghdad (let alone Port au Prince) bureau” but many innovative outlets have shown that it’s at least possible to deliver meaningful, accurate, insightful news content without spending billions of dollars.  So, it’s a small point, but it’s important to recognize that solving the problem isn’t (and shouldn’t be) about a one-to-one replacement of lost dollars from mainstream media outlets.

2) I take issue with the way the term “non-profit” is used.  It seems too narrow to me.  I shouldn’t pick on Mutter because I see this in all corners of the debate, but non-profit doesn’t have to mean “publicly funded” or “only supported by charitable donations.”  In my view, the failure of journalism derives from the fact that too many mainstream media organizations are capitalist operations.  They’re publicly owned entities–usually a subsidiary of a larger conglomerate–that are producing a product in hopes of selling it to a market.  They’re worried about increasing margins and shareholder returns, not practicing journalism.  I mean, has anyone watched the Today Show lately?  They’re in the business of selling.

Forget funding for a second (I know, naive).  If we agree that a free press (or independent news media, or whatever) is vital for the health of a democracy, then we should also believe that journalism organizations should be mission-driven: to provide information in the public interest, in such a way that promotes civic engagement and good governance.  There’s no reason why an organization with that mission shouldn’t be able to have a business model that’s something other than “non-profit” (in the narrow sense of the term) without jumping all the way over to “cog in a capitalist machine.”  Let’s use the New Yorker as an example.  While their model (one rich guy who doesn’t mind losing a lot of money on a magazine) isn’t exactly sustainable, it gets to the point I’m trying to make: “for-profit” news outlets can be governed by something other than a desire for better margins.  In order to endure, the New Yorker is going to have to find another way to support itself, but I don’t think it has to become The Today Show in order to do so.

I’m fully willing to recognize that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.  God knows there have been umpteen discussions on this topic, among people who actually work in this field.  I just think there needs to be a little more imagination (and maybe more focus on the mission rather than the product) when thinking about how journalism will be reconceived.

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