Nonprofit News: How Start-ups Can Pay Their Way

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At the University of Texas in Austin last week, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation convened a dozen of the country's new, mainly nonprofit news-gathering organizations to discuss the Holy Grail of start-up theology: seeking ways to be sustainable beyond philanthropic largesse. Knight's president, Alberto Ibarguen, and their vice-president for journalism programs, Eric Newton, have played a crucial guiding role in the emergence of these journalism enterprises, countering the broader narrative of severe cutbacks in newspaper and broadcast resources. Nothing like this has happened on a national scale in the American media since the origins of public radio and television in the 1960s and 1970s, when a combination of government-backed initiatives such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and foundations, led by the Ford Foundation, provided the framework and funding for nonprofit news over the airwaves.

For the most part, in our society, news delivered in newspapers, in magazines, by broadcasters, and in the initial decade on the Internet, has been market-driven. Our media industry is overwhelmingly a commercially based competition for survival of the fittest, in which the quality of output is subsidized by the revenues it can attract. This is an anomaly, considering that the role of a vibrant press is considered indispensable in a democracy, and should be a civic asset on a par with other great nonprofit information institutions such as universities, libraries, and museums.

In particular, the precipitous decline in newspaper revenues leading to closures, bankruptcies, and the loss of many thousands of jobs has diminished ambitions for metro, investigative, and international reporting and cast a fin de siècle pall over journalism, even as the best of what is being produced across multiple platforms is outstanding. I'm certain that this year's Pulitzer Prize, National Magazine Award, and Peabody medalists could hold their own for breadth and impact with winners of the past. So as Ibarguen observed in his wrap-up remarks, the Austin session was notable for an absence of hand-wringing and pessimism, an apparent determination to pool initial experiences in nonprofit newsgathering with a goal of providing models for sustainable operation in a digital age. As undeniable as the downside in journalism has been in recent years, the potential for reinvention and innovation is now established.

I attended the Austin meeting as a co-founder and advisory board member of the Chicago News Cooperative (CNC), which is being led by James O'Shea, a former top editor at the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Since last fall, CNC's staff has been providing two pages twice a week to the edition of the New York Times distributed in Chicago and environs as the first phase of an ambitious plan for state and local coverage on a robust website, plus the development of community based "news interest networks" in subjects such as education and culture. Here are the other organizations represented at the session: Bay Citizen/California Watch/Center for Investigative Reporting, Connecticut News Project, Gotham Gazette, Crosscut.com, New American Media, New Haven Independent, Oakland Local, Texas Tribune, St. Louis Beacon, and Voices of San Diego.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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