A harder future for non-profit journalism

What does the future of non-profit news look like? Maybe not as bright as we had hoped.

Nieman Journalism Lab director Joshua Benton gave a talk recently on “Eight Trends for Journalism in 2011.” There are a lot of interesting nuggets, and I want to give it a more careful read later. (Thanks to Jay Rosen for flagging it on Twitter.) But I was particularly struck by Benton’s prediction that we may have reached a peak in non-profit journalism, and that the slogging will be tougher from here on out. Benton writes:

I do think that 2011 is going to see some trimming back, because a lot of these news organizations were started on initial gifts from very well intentioned wealthy people, or local foundations that gave lump-sum payments. And a lot of them are having a real difficult time transitioning to anything that looks sustainable.

The non-profit project I follow most closely is the New Haven Independent. Benton’s prediction will not be news to the founder and editor, Paul Bass. In fact, he and I talked last summer about how to move from a model that relies mostly on foundation grants to one that relies mostly on user contributions and sponsorships, similar to public radio.

Since last fall, the Independent has used Journalism Online’s Press Plus system to ask for voluntary contributions.

Still, a site like the Independent, serving a small, poor community, is hardly a public radio station, many of which draw on large, affluent regions, and whose listeners can thus afford to give.

Ultimately, I wonder if local foundation officials will have to face up to the reality that journalism is a social service essential to the community fabric and needs to be funded on a sustaining basis.

I understand that when foundations give money to non-profit news organizations, they have that much less they can allocate to traditional programs helping young people, the homeless and the like. No doubt that makes for a very hard sell.

But a good non-profit news organization can foster the kind of civic engagement that makes it more likely people will take an interest in their community — and perhaps to donate money to those foundations. I think that’s called a virtuous circle.

4 thoughts on “A harder future for non-profit journalism

  1. Doesn’t public radio survive, in part, due to a kind of profit sharing arrangement between the stations, via NPR &/or PRI &/or PBS ?

    I had the impression that big stations like WBUR & WGBH bring in enough revenue that, in part & maybe indirectly, they effectively help support stations in smaller, poorer markets (e.g. say Mississippi Public Radio, etc).

    Maybe something like this is part of the solution then? Heck, maybe part of the solution could be for NPR to mutate — they’ve already nominally dropped “radio” from the acronym, and are just “NPR” now. Maybe the “NP” can change from “National Public” to “Non-Profit”, and they can start providing resources to local media outlets such as the New Haven Independent?

    Hm.

  2. L.K. Collins

    Don’t kid yourself. The successful “public” outlets are in the business of selling their productions to get a revenue stream.

    It is wrong to think that non-profits don’t make a profit. It is more a matter of what they do with them.

  3. Aaron Read

    @Chris: In short, no. There is no profit-sharing arrangement.

    All NPR member stations pay an affiliate fee to NPR. They also pay fees for each individual program that they purchase from NPR. The fees for both are tiered, based on a station’s revenue and market size.

    Stations who are members of PRI and APM and buy programming from those two outlets pay on a similar, tiered, structure.

    Independent shows run the gamut; some are just free. Others charge a flat rate to all stations. Some also have a tiered structure.

    In that sense, larger stations in larger markets “subsidize” smaller stations in smaller markets because they pay a lot more based on the tiered fee schedule. But it has more to do with the reality that if smaller stations didn’t get a financial break, they would never elect to purchase the programming in the first place.

    @L.K. Of course successful non-profits make a profit; if you define “profit” as “greater revenues than expenses”. There aren’t too many businesses out there that continue to function unless that’s the case! 🙂 Well, maybe if you’re T.B.T.F. 😦 The difference is that non-profits…or the more accurate way to describe them: “not for-profit”…are restricted from taking any profits and enriching the owners. Usually that means the profits are put back into the business, presumably for its betterment.

  4. C.E. Stead

    @Aaron – Or, they take the ‘excess cash’ of the non-profit and use it to pay higher salaries and bonuses. Not that anybody would ‘enriched’ by that, like a rank capitalist.

    (Always keep an eye on adiminstrative costs when giving, not merely the virtue of the cause)

Comments are closed.