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September 18, 2007

Hinterland Diary: a historic opportunity for nonprofit journalism

John Stoehr

Is it time for daily newspapers to go the way of PBS and NPR? . . .

Why not nonprofit online newspapers serving their communities--Orlando or Akron or San Francisco--supported by local citizens and area foundations, or perhaps in association with local colleges and universities? Or, beyond the local scale, if five million people regularly coalesce as subscribing members of a National Geographic Society, why can't other serious journalistic entities draw such numbers in a digital world, across borders? And beyond daily news coverage, is there a way to regularly generate high-quality, investigative and international reporting as a syndication service or as a "viewers like you"-supported Web destination? Such things are absolutely possible, and absolutely sustainable, with the right combinations of people, resources, and timing--and they are certainly needed.

From "The Nonprofit Road: It's paved not with gold, but with quality journalism," by Charles Lewis for the September/October issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Posted by John Stoehr at September 18, 2007 11:20 AM


It's already being done here in Minnesota, where former Minneapolis Star Tribune publisher Joel Kramer is preparing to launch an online daily called MinnPost, staffed by professional journalists (mainly those who took buyouts from the Strib and the St. Paul Pioneer Press in recent years, and those who fled City Pages after the New Times takeover last year) and funded largely by donations. Time will tell how reliable the business model is, but a lot of people in the journalism business will undoubtedly be watching closely...


Posted by: Sam Bergman at September 18, 2007 12:06 PM

Amen to taking the news business out of the profit-maximization game, by whatever means necessary. Maybe America's most prominent one-time newspaperman, Al Gore, can add save-the-news to his save-the-earth portfolio. Who knows - the latter may depend on the former. Any big charity campaign - which is what this overhauling of the news business would be - needs a frontperson and a friendly arm-twister-in-chief. Any nominations for Chairman Al? An early order of business would be to crunch numbers, city by city, to determine how big a nut would be needed to acquire or gradually defeat existing profit-maxing media, and to ensure a healthy operating budget. Separate news organizations devoted to foreign, state govmt. and national reporting might have to be created and funded. Until the figures are available, there will be no way to pinpoint and entice the donors needed to make the concept fly: a critical mass of zillionaires who in their hearts of hearts prefer democracy to plutocracy. Will there be enough of those to go around? And if they all live in big cities, will they extend their largesse to other communities that need it? Even if the zillionaires come through, I can imagine huge battles over mission inside these new nonprofits: NPR is one of many choices on radio, so it is free to occupy a niche that reflects its donor base. But in most places, near-monopoly will probably prevail among local and regional print/web news operations. Who gets served - the donor class funding the nonprofit news gig, or the large majority of potential readers who don't have lawyers and financial advisors watching their backs, and must rely on the press?

By the way, should the idea of journalism going nonprofit have arts organizations shaking in their boots? They'd stand to lose established donors - media companies with an incentive to write off some profits and earn brand recognition and goodwill via charitable donations. And they would find themselves crowded for contributions by new, high-profile nonprofits who ARE the media, and who have Al Gore, et. al., to spread the message. Sorry, Dana Gioia, but you're no Al Gore. Or would savvy arts organizations take that competition as an opportunity to guilt their newly-nonprofit local media into doing an assiduous (and, needless to say, professionally skeptical) job of cultural coverage?

Posted by: Mike Boehm at September 19, 2007 10:58 PM