Ben Buchwalter

Newspapers as Nonprofits
February 4, 2009, 1:14 pm
Filed under: Media | Tags: , ,

A few weeks back, David Swenson and Michael Schmidt wrote an op-ed for the New York Times calling for the nonprofitization of newspapers. These nonprofit institutions would be run much like Colleges and Universitites, driven largely by their endowments.

Endowments would enhance newspapers’ autonomy while shielding them from the economic forces that are now tearing them down.

As evidence that the newspaper model needs to be revived, the authors point to the declining economic success of the New York Times, Washington Post, and a handful of the nation’s other leading daily newspapers. And it’s well known that the American media, driven by ratings and traditional modes of economic success, have strayed from covering the most important domestic and international news, to monopolizing print with fluff that will draw hoardes of readers (or viewers) and boost numbers. 

In short, newspapers are no longer educating people about important news. They tell readers what they want to hear. Nonprofit newspapers could resore journalism to its proper purpose by granting the organizations the autonomy to cover the most important news, not only the most shocking. 

Slate has a stupid article up today opposing nonprofit newspapers. One of his reasons for opposing this model is becuase it lacks accountability. 

Who would appoint the directors of the foundation? To whom would the foundation be accountable? To whom would the editors and reporters ultimately report—the foundation directors or the readers?

This concern only shows that the author – Jack Shafer – has little faith in nonprofits in general, not solely the prospects of nonprofit newspapers. Does he think that nonprofit organizations have no one in charge? That no person or group of people is responsible for their success or failure? As in a regular nonprofit organization, the editors and reporters would report to the foundation directors, who report to the organization’s Board Directors, who are representatives of the readers. 

Shafer’s other argument against nonprofit newspapers is equally unimaginative.

There’s also something disconcerting about wanting to divorce the newspaper from market pressures. (If I wanted that sort of news product, I’d watch The NewsHour.) Without some market discipline, how will a newspaper know whether it is succeeding or not[?]

Are you kidding me? Clearly a large hunk of the reason some people want nonprofit newspapers is exactly so that they would not define success by how many people want to read their news. While traveling in South Africa and Europe last summer, I was struck by some of the in-depth BBC stories from Mali, or India, or Mexico that simply would not have been covered by the mainstream American media, obsessed as it is with market standards of success.

Newspapers becoming nonprofits does not mean that all accountability and quality will immediately disappear. It means that excellence will be redefined based on the quality of the reporting and the significance of the stories covered. 

That doesn’t sound half bad.


1 Comment so far
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Not a bad idea…but if the trend continues they will be if they like it or not. Just because you aren’t driven by the bottomline doesn’t mean you’ll be driven to tell the truth. The truth always is a newspaper’s big seller. They just don’t tell the truth. It’s their opinion.

Comment by Cecil Jones

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