By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Kinsley’s sour take on newspapers

Michael Kinsley is in a sour mood today as he ponders the future of newspapers. Shorter Kinsley: Let ’em die. Slightly longer Kinsley: Non-profit, foundation-supported newspapers are a bad idea because if the marketplace won’t support them, then they have no right to exist.

Personally, I’m not wild about the idea of non-profit newspapers. For one thing, you have to give up some of your First Amendment rights. For another, there’s a danger that such papers, insulated from the pressures of the marketplace, will become too disconnected from their readers.

I prefer the St. Petersburg Times model: a for-profit newspaper owned by a non-profit organization — the Poynter Institute, in the Times’ case. The financial advantages aren’t as great as true non-profit status, but at least the editors don’t have to check with the IRS every time they want to weigh in on a political matter.

But gee, Mike, let a thousand experiments bloom. I’d like to see someone give non-profit newspapering a try. Maybe we can start with the Boston Globe.

And let me point out that public radio stations are pretty much all owned by non-profit foundations, and they are anything but disconnected from their listeners. Simply by having to solicit the bulk of their money from listeners, public radio station executives are perhaps more connected to their communities than many newspaper publishers and editors.

Finally: Kinsley is so far off in his observation that newspapers are dying because no one wants to read them that it’s hard to know where to begin. Do I really have to point out that newspaper readership is reasonably healthy when you add print and online readers together?

Just because it’s become a cliché to say that the business model is broken doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

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11 Comments

  1. mrschuyler

    Although it sheds no light (but some fur) on the subject, you might get a chuckle from Reggie Sheprador’s take on the newspaper financial problem. It’s in his April 6 blog entry at http://www.votereggie.com—jim schuyler

  2. James

    Thank you, Dan.I hear Mr Kinsley. But I’m also a bit bewildered by the neoliberal view that market forces can deal with all issues.On the face of it, it doesn’t seem so to me.I certainly know how much I’ve come to rely upon NPR as a generally reliable news source.As an almost irrelevant footnote, I’m curious about the number inflation of the hundred flowers phrase. You’re hardly the first. On a similar note, a poem attributed to Rumi sings of breaking one’s vows a hundred times. It, too, has become in many version a thousand…

  3. Dan Kennedy

    James: Chairman Mao. Then he killed those who were foolish enough to believe him.

  4. ron-newman

    Off-topic, but: do any of you remember the ‘100 Flowers’ bookstore on Pearl Street in Central Square, Cambridge? Closed some time in the late 1970s or early 80s.

  5. Mike from Norwell

    Dan, about time we get some people with at least rudimentary financial backgrounds into Congress. Since the problem right now is that existing newspapers are operating in the red, not quite sure how switching them to non-profit status is going to help (if you’re hemorrhaging money, taxation of hypothetical profits is the least of your concerns).

  6. Dan Kennedy

    Mike: Members of Congress may not be quite so dumb as you think. Well, OK, they are, but not about this. The non-profit, foundation model is actually a way that would allow newspapers to operate at a loss in perpetuity.

  7. Mike from Norwell

    Granted, but there are issues. Think you may be venturing into UBTI (unrelated business taxable income) issues with ad revenue (UBTI levels the playing field so that a charity can’t just establish an outside line of business that would ordinarily be subject to taxation – designed so that a nonprofit can’t take advantage of their status over for-profit competitors), so not certain that the (dwindling) revenue would avoid taxation.

  8. NewsHound

    Perhaps the concept of operating newspapers at a loss into perpetuity will require refinement. The non-profit will require substantial capital to own assets to produce the product, most likely will need different structure with unions to go into perpetuity, and will require generous donations to offset the projected loss.This may not be the year to compete for large endowments for many obvious reasons. In any environment, a new, major, additional claim on charities may not be that successful since so much is already consumed by universities, colleges, museums, hospitals, medical research and other, smaller, but important community outreach programs. Newspapers are important and nice, but the flat computer screen on the breakfast table may be replacing the broadsheet spread out next to the coffee cup.

  9. LFNeilson

    As we sit here trying to brainstorm the future of newspapers, there may be forces out there in the clouds that we haven’t yet seen. Will we reach a point where papers are buying so little newsprint that the mills cannot continue to operate? Will we have large newspapers, small ones, or none? Will the power grid shut down, leaving us to crank out single-sheet newspapers using hand-set type? (Not really)I’m 62 and from a newspaper background and I cannot imagine life without newspapers. Our niece, 38, does not buy newspapers. She reads everything on-line. I felt very lost when she said that.Am I just a horse-lover seeing the invention of the automobile?zzzzz

  10. NewsHound

    Larz – It’s hard to predict the future – but some of us are are old stable boys resent all those people who find efficiency in their shinny horseless carriages. I’m one who found a lot more charm with a couple of linecasting machines, a Ludlow, and an old flatbed press than the more sterile subsequent Compugraphic and more complex offset press. Now, I can’t believe what used to cost a fortune and weigh many tons can not be done for almost nothing on machines weighing a few pounds.

  11. mike_b1

    “Non-profit” doesn’t equal “for loss.”

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