In that light, The Philadelphia Inquirer and its kin can seem like a sign of what’s to come. Will other papers follow them down the nonprofit path?
It depends, in part, on what happens next.
Supporting news through a nonprofit setup isn’t unheard of. In 1936, the owner of the British newspaper The Guardian renounced his shares and transferred them to a trust in order to maintain the paper’s political and financial independence. (In our time, that trust has made some good bets on tech companies and invested in The Guardian’s recently launched American news site.)
Here in the U.S., The Tampa Bay Times has lived under the nonprofit Poynter Institute since 1978. That’s when Nelson Poynter, the paper’s owner, willed control of the paper to what was then called the Modern Media Institute to support the study of journalism. (It was renamed for him after his death.) And more recently, news startups like the civic-minded ProPublica and The Marshall Project, which specializes in criminal-justice issues, have seemed to thrive as nonprofit projects supported by a national array of donors.
But none of those examples will look quite like what’s happening in Philadelphia.
The Tampa Bay Times, for one, was given to the Poynter Institute in order to support the Institute, not the paper. In the late 1970s, the Times, like almost every other morning metro daily, was turning a terrific profit, and Poynter wanted that profit to support the study of journalism.
“It was thought that newspapers were licenses to print money,” said Richard Tofel, a news-publishing veteran and the current president of ProPublica. “So Mr. Poynter gave his license to print money to this nonprofit that would engage in all sorts of civic activities.”
“What you’ve seen—and Poynter has been quite transparent about this—is as the newspaper’s profits have faded, the nonprofit has been endangered,” he said.
Nonprofit upstarts like ProPublica also don’t serve as useful comparisons. ProPublica had the benefit of starting as a fresh entity, and it has none of the financial and logistical baggage that accompanies a legacy paper.
“In a print newspaper, an order of magnitude— 85 percent of the costs—are probably spent on things other than news, and only about 15 percent is spent on news,” Tofel told me. “In our operation, conversely, 80 percent of the money we spend, we spend on news. So as a nonprofit investment, you get a heck of a lot more investment for your charitable buck in digital.”
Josh Benton, the director of Harvard University’s Nieman Lab, echoed Tofel’s thoughts. “The Marshall Project is not a new desk at The New York Times covering criminal justice,” he said. “Because as wonderful as The New York Times is, there are elements of its structure, its workflows, its business obligations, its distribution patterns that are tied to being a newspaper.”