There’s been some confusion over Chicago Public Media’s acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times, a tabloid that is the city’s number-two daily newspaper. For example, The New York Times reported that “the ownership structure would be similar to that of The Philadelphia Inquirer, a big-city paper that the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism has run since 2016.”
Well, no. The Inquirer is a for-profit newspaper owned by a nonprofit organization. If the Inquirer itself were a nonprofit, it would be barred from endorsing political candidates. In fact, the paper continues to endorse candidates and published an “Endorsement Guide” as recently as last fall.
What’s happening in Chicago is different. The ownership of the Sun-Times will be converted to nonprofit with its own board, according to WBEZ, the broadcast arm of Chicago Public Media. The Sun-Times itself reports that the paper will “convert from for-profit to nonprofit status.” That would make it the second major daily paper to become a nonprofit, following The Salt Lake Tribune. Recently the executive editor of the Tribune, Lauren Gustus, reported that the paper is healthy and growing under nonprofit ownership.
As I mentioned, there is one disadvantage to nonprofit ownership: news organizations can’t endorse candidates or advocate for certain legislative actions without endangering their tax-exempt status. Of course, there are plenty observers who see that as a feature rather than a bug. For instance, David Boardman, chair of the Lenfest Institute, greeted the news that the Sun-Times will no longer be able to endorse with this:
Not making endorsements is a plus. One of the great albatrosses of the newspaper business.
But endorsements can be useful, especially in smaller races to which voters may be paying minimal attention. Besides, it’s an infringement on free speech. Such a rule didn’t even exist until Lyndon Johnson rammed it through the Senate in order to silence political opponents back home in Texas.
In any event, with Alden Global Capital disemboweling the long-dominant Chicago Tribune, the announcement that WBEZ and the Sun-Times will soon be covering the region with a combined newsroom is good news. And it shows that people and institutions are willing to step up when market failure undermines local news coverage.
Several readers called this Washington Post piece to my attention over the weekend. It’s about a fundraising drive recently held by the Tampa Bay Times to offset some of the advertising revenue it lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Post reporter Elahe Izadi observes that the idea isn’t entirely new. The Seattle Times has engaged in community fundraising drives, and The Times-Picayune and The New Orleans Advocate (one entity) received $1 million over the summer from the Ford Foundation. For that matter, The Boston Globe pays for some of its education reporting with a $600,000 grant from the Barr Foundation.
What makes the Tampa Bay project unusual is that the paper asked for people to donate in support of individual journalists, by name. That makes me a little uncomfortable, and I hope the next time they do this they abandon that particular wrinkle.
As you may know, the Tampa Bay Times, a for-profit newspaper, is owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education institute. Back when Nelson Poynter melded the Times and the institute together, the expectation was that the newspaper — rolling in cash — could use some of its revenues to support the institute.
Needless to say, that stopped a long time ago. The Times has struggled for the past few years, and has cut back its print edition to twice a week. It’s still a great ownership model, though, emulated several years ago when Philadelphia Inquirer owner Gerry Lenfest donated his paper to the nonprofit Philadelphia Foundation. After Lenfest’s death, the organization that was set up to own the Inquirer and make investments in journalism was renamed the Lenfest Institute.
By the way, I really like the front page of today’s Tampa Bay Times. Let’s just hope they’re not fundraising off a commemorative issue later this week. Go Sox!
Among the worst outcomes of Stewart Bainum’s failed bid to purchase Tribune Publishing is that he lost out on an earlier deal to buy The Baltimore Sun and donate it to a nonprofit organization.
The hedge fund Alden Global Capital had originally agreed to spin off the Sun to Bainum after buying Tribune’s nine major-market dailies. That deal fell through when Bainum, a Baltimore hotel magnate, balked at Alden’s terms and tried to buy the entire chain.
So it’s very good news that Bainum appears to be moving ahead with a nonprofit venture that would compete with the Sun. Rick Edmonds of Poynter reported earlier this week that Bainum is advertising for a chief product officer who’ll work for a “well-funded startup” aimed at becoming “a new paradigm for digital first, cross-channel local media.”
The project will include the web, mobile, terrestrial and satellite radio and video, both on television and online, according to the ad, which adds that the “vision is to be the leading provider of news and lifestyle content in the Baltimore area.”
Bainum was originally willing to pay $65 million for the Sun. Assuming that money is still on the table, this should be a well-funded regional news product. Bloomberg and the Lenfest Institute are involved, too, though Edmonds suggests their role will be minimal.
One aspect I find interesting is the cross-platform nature of the project. The biggest challenge facing online-only media is getting the word out that they exist. As a former newspaper executive once told me, the problem with dumping the print edition in favor of digital is that print is essentially a billboard for digital. If print goes away, you disappear to non-subscribers. Bainum might avoid that problem by moving into radio and television as well as digital.
I also wonder whether there’s an underlying strategy to wrest the Sun away from Alden. Given the way the hedge fund is already decimating its holdings, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and the Hartford Courant, there is little doubt that the Bainum project will be a better, more comprehensive news organization than the Sun on the day that it debuts.
If the Sun’s audience and advertisers (yes, nonprofits can accept ads) move en masse to Bainum’s venture, Alden might prove willing to walk away.
Thanks to a partnership with the Google News Initiative, each organization in the first cohort will receive a $15,000 stipend to help create the capacity for the founders to get started. In addition, the GNI has funded their first year of membership dues in the Collective and LION Publishers.
The projects range from an organization covering education news in part of Orange County, California, to an outlet with the wonderful name Black by God, which seeks “to share perspectives that cultivate, curate, and elevate Black voices from West Virginia.”
The Tiny News Collective strikes me as a more interesting approach to dealing with the local news crisis than initiatives unveiled recently by Substack and Facebook. Those require you to set up shop on their platforms. By contrast, the Tiny News Collective is aimed at helping community journalism entrepreneurs to achieve sustainability on their own rather than become cogs in someone else’s machine.
The print edition of many newspapers has become such a small part of their operations that printing simply isn’t cost-effective unless they’re able to take on outside customers. No doubt they’re celebrating at Gannett, since the Inquirer deal means less time that their presses will be idle. But when the Inquirer’s shutdown takes place later this year, 500 people will lose their jobs.
You can be sure that Boston Globe owners John and Linda Henry are looking at this move closely. The launch of the Globe’s printing plant in Taunton in mid-2017 was plagued with problems, and after they were fixed the Globe found itself with fewer outside printing jobs than it had expected. With digital far outpacing print, at some point it may make sense simply to sell the Taunton plant and print the Globe elsewhere.
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Could the example of the late Gerry Lenfest save Tribune Publishing’s newspapers from the avaricious clutches of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital?
About a half-dozen years ago, Lenfest, a billionaire investor, unexpectedly became the owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and its related media properties. It’s an incredibly convoluted story that I tell in “The Return of the Moguls,” but essentially he had acquired a piece of the Inquirer with the intention of flipping it, and he ended up instead with the whole thing.
Lenfest’s next move saved quality journalism in Philadelphia: In early 2016 he donated his media properties to the Philadelphia Foundation, which in turn set up a nonprofit that, after his death, became known as the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Today the Inquirer is in far better shape than many metro dailies.
Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Jim Friedlich, executive director and chief executive of the institute, argues that Tribune newspapers could be saved if deep-pockets philanthropists acquired them and then emulated Lenfest — or simply ran them as for-profit enterprises, as with John and Linda Henry at The Boston Globe and Patrick Soon-Shiong at the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune. Friedlich writes:
An Alden purchase of all of Tribune doesn’t have to be a fait accompli. In fact, the threat of such a deal represents an opportunity for civic-minded local investors across the country, who could use this case not only to save a critical local news institution, but to reinvent it.
Soon-Shiong continues to be a major Tribune shareholder, and I recently wrote that he should consider rescuing the chain, which includes papers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in America.
As we know, local news is in crisis, and that has produced a considerable amount of ferment. Most of the attention right now is on Alden’s bid for a majority share of Tribune, which involves regional rather than strictly local news organizations. But there’s a lot happening at the grassroots as well.
For instance, Sarah Scire reports for the Nieman Journalism Lab on an ambitious effort to provide local news start-ups with the support they need to launch and continue operating. Imagine a journalist who’s been laid off by a corporate-owned newspaper and who wants to start something at the hyperlocal level. Where to begin?
According to Scire, the Tiny News Collective takes care of a lot of the back-end details that journalists are usually not trained to attend to themselves. “The project,” Scire writes, “will offer entrepreneurial journalists a tech stack, business training, legal assistance, and back-office services like payroll for around $100 a month.”
The Tiny News Collective, a collaboration between News Catalyst and LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, is hoping to have a hand in starting news projects in 500 communities, half of them covering underserved populations.
Also worth watching is the Crosstown Neighborhood Newsletter project in Los Angeles — an effort to make smart use of data in order to produce a multitude of newsletters, each aimed at a tiny slice of the public. The editor, Gabriel Kahn, a professor at USC Annenberg, writes that Crosstown — “a collaboration between software engineers, designers and journalists” — recently launched 110 such newsletters in one day. He explains:
Our formula starts with data. We collect data about everything we can in Los Angeles, from traffic and crime to COVID-19 cases and building permits. Much of this data is hiding in plain sight, housed on local government dashboards that are hard to navigate. We divvy up the data by neighborhood. One citywide dataset about parking fines becomes 110 stories about how many more or fewer tickets were issued in each neighborhood during the COVID lockdown.
Crosstown reminds me of EveryBlock, a project started in 2008 by the pioneering data journalist Adrian Holovaty that was also heavily dependent on publicly available data. EveryBlock never really caught on, and it shut down in 2013. But far more information is online today than was the case a decade ago, and the tools for presenting it have improved considerably. It could be that the time for Holovaty’s idea has arrived.
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A little gallows humor seems like an appropriate way to greet the news that The Salt Lake Tribune — the largest daily newspaper in Utah — will seek permission from the IRS to become a nonprofit entity. So cue the snare drum:
Q: What’s the difference between a for-profit newspaper and a nonprofit newspaper?
A: A nonprofit newspaper might actually be able to figure out a way to make money.
But hold the snark. Because even though nonprofit status would not relieve the Tribune of the obligation to figure out a way to pay for the journalism it provides, this might be the most hopeful step in newspaper ownership since The Philadelphia Inquirer and its sister properties were donated to a nonprofit foundation in 2016.
The Salt Lake plan would actually take the Philadelphia model one giant step further. The Inquirer remains a for-profit paper even though its owner, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, is a nonprofit organization. What the owners in Salt Lake hope to do is reorganize the Tribune itself as a nonprofit, enabling it to raise money in the form of tax-exempt contributions from large foundations as well as from (to borrow a phrase) readers like you.
“The Tribune is a vital community asset and should be owned by the community,” said publisher Paul Huntsman, the brother of former ambassador and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman.
The slide at daily newspapers everywhere has been precipitous, but it’s been especially acute at the Tribune. The newsroom has plunged from 148 full-time employees in 2011 to about 60 today. (Huntsman bought the paper in 2016 and eliminated more than 30 positions a year ago.) Print circulation, according to the Nieman Lab, fell from 85,000 in 2014 to just 31,000 in 2018.
The situation in Salt Lake City is complicated by the Tribune’s joint operating agreement with a second daily, the Deseret News, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That agreement expires in a year. So it will take a while for the dust to settle.
Despite the success of our three national papers, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, in charging for digital subscriptions, the outlook remains dire at the regional level. Although Boston Globe owner John Henry surprised everyone last December when he said his paper had achieved profitability, the Globe’s financial situation is still murky. Elsewhere it’s Armageddon. As The Wall Street Journal put it in a recent examination of local newspapers: “A stark divide has emerged between a handful of national players that have managed to stabilize their businesses and local outlets for which time is running out.”
As the advertising revenues that traditionally subsidized journalism have dwindled, newspapers are looking more and more like what economists refer to as a “public good” — that is, a service that benefits all of us whether we pay for it or not. The fire department is a classic example of a public good because we all need it, yet few of us would pay for it voluntarily. That’s what taxes are for. But what do we do about a newspaper whose exposé of corruption in city hall, for example, benefits “free riders” who don’t pay as well as those who do?
That’s where the nonprofit model comes in. At its best, nonprofit ownership can break the reliance on revenue from advertisers and readers by getting others to pay for it.
“My view is that one of the things that connects people is a common base of information about what’s going on in this place. That it’s actually a very powerful connector,” the foundation’s president and chief executive officer, Will Ginsberg, said in an interview for my 2013 book “The Wired City.” “And it’s therefore a very powerful ingredient in creating a sense of community.”
From the moment that the internet began undermining the economics of journalism, the paramount question for newspapers has been: Who will pay? If The Salt Lake Tribune is successful in winning IRS approval, we’ll have a chance to see if civic-minded foundation leaders and philanthropists might be one answer. It’s already working at smaller projects such as the New Haven Independent and at public broadcasting operations. It’s worth finding out if it might work for large regional newspapers as well.
For local and regional news organizations, nothing is more expensive — or more important — than investigative journalism aimed at holding government and other large institutions to account. Despite the economic challenges that continue to shrink the newspaper business, The Boston Globe continues to provide a steady stream of such stories. And over the past few days, the paper demonstrated the results of two innovative ways to fund such reporting.
First, on Saturday, the Globe published a major update on how Catholic bishops have failed in their response to the sexual-abuse crisis. The story, which appeared in print on Sunday, was reported and written by a team of journalists from the Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer, with funding from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. The institute, a nonprofit organization, owns the Inquirer and two sister media properties, the result of a gift from the late Gerry Lenfest in 2016. (I wrote about Lenfest’s legacy for the Globe after his death in August.) Here is how the Globe describes the partnership:
Boston and Philadelphia have been ground zero for the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal — both cities have endured years of church investigations, allegations, prosecutions, and lasting scars. Now, amid a rising tide of revelations about misconduct by US bishops, the Inquirer and Globe pooled their resources for a deeper look at the crisis. Reporters from the two newsrooms visited nine states, conducted scores of interviews, and reviewed thousands of pages of court and church records to produce this report. Funding for the effort came from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Then, today, the Globe published a story by Jana Winter on attempts by hackers to penetrate voting systems across the United States. Fortunately, her reporting shows that officials are well aware of those attempts and that they appear to be on top of it. Equally interesting, though, is that Winter is the Globe’s Spotlight Fellow — a program funded by Participant Media, which produced the movie “Spotlight.” The fellowship, according to the online description, provides “awards up to $100,000 for one or more individuals or teams of journalists to work on in-depth research and reporting projects.”
As if to underscore the need for alternative funding for accountability journalism, the Globe unveiled a shrunken business section on Sunday, moving innovation columnist Scott Kirsner to Monday.
Quick note about my weekly @bostonglobe column, “Innovation Economy”: after more than a decade of running on Sunday, it’s moving (back) to Monday. Not my decision but I’m psyched to keep it going. It originally launched in Feb 2000 on Mondays.
Kirsner’s column was usually the main event in the Sunday business section. Given that it will continue, this isn’t too much of a loss. But it does show that the Globe’s finances remain precarious, as publisher John Henry admitted when I interviewed him during the summer for WGBH News:
The Globe cannot ever seem to meet budgets — on either the revenue side or the expense side and I am not going to continue that. This has always been about sustainability rather than sizable, endless, annual losses. That is frustrating and due to a combination of mismanagement and a tough industry.
In such an economic environment, it’s essential that the Globe find new ways to pay for what really matters.