Tuesday, June 23, 2009

To profit or - nonprofit?

We'll need a prophet.

Why do I feel so torn about this? Drum up a few billion-dollar endowments for the bigger papers, and a bunch with just a few million - hey, the poetry conference at the local college managed to come up with an endowment, surely newspapers can too! Nonprofit status would come with its own thorns, but grant writers wouldn't be any pricier than ad and sales staff. Writers would be under less pressure than ever, corporate-wise. Transparency, which is necessary to the brand of any paper and will only become more so, would be increased through the reporting methods required in nonprofits. It sounds like a fairly elegant solution.

Prima facie, I don't have concrete objections - I have an article sitting in my inbox to read and I will no doubt find some. But holding it in abeyance, for the moment, nonprofit sounds smart...but it feels sticky.

It seems like a step backward, and it feels like giving up. It raises a preliminary concern that something vital will go out of news, some competitive edge. Besides, I still think there's money to be made peddling information in the age of history in which it is more important than ever before. I also have the feeling that if news goes nonprofit, it will be a temporary solution; information is too valuable. Someone will find a way to sell it again. - On the other hand, if it's free to start with, what more are they going to offer?

On to that article: The Trouble with Non-Profit Journalism.

Jonathon Weber writes, "...We are held to the brutal discipline of the market, which is very unpleasant a lot of the time but I think is ultimately a healthy thing. For the core problem that non-profit journalism will never be able to solve properly is deciding what is worthy."

Ok, I'm listening....

"In a business, the customers ultimately decide what is worthy, for better and for worse. Managers at good companies can think for the long term and the greater good - and in fact there is clearly a market for thoughtful journalism - but as the VCs like to say, eventually the dogs have to eat the dog food. It keeps you honest. In a non-profit, either the board or the employees decide what is worthy - and why them?"

I don't get it.

I don't see what would change - right now, the editors and the publisher prioritize stories based on what falls within our coverage area, what will catch the most attention, what affects the most people. In that order, actually. I believe that model would persist - and in fact, with less pressure to sell sell sell, we might have fewer swine flu newsprint epidemics (did you know that we went to level 6, the highest level, on the WHO scale? No? Maybe that's because the story was over-hyped before and is under-hyped now. It's still a concern people. Just not a black and white and red all over, wear-a-face-mask type of concern.) and more depth about community budgets, instead of isolated murder stories that really only affect the perp and the victim and their families.

Weber is concerned about losing the fluff completely; without lifestyle pieces, recipes of the week, movie listings, comics, personal finance tips, et al, consumers might further lose interest, throwing off the model for sales contributions to the nonprofit budget. I say...meh. There is space for those things. They aren't difficult to produce. Weber questions if the foundation mission would allow for that. Well, why not? Write it in. That's a weak hypothetical problem.

He does grant that nonprofit support has a place, and that he himself is seeking funding for some projects. And I think that might be his greatest insight: nonprofit journalism may be most applicable on a project basis.

Still sticky, though.

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