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The downside of nonprofit news organizations like MinnPost

Slate's piquant press critic Jack Shafer has a piece today entitled "Nonprofit Journalism Comes at a Cost." Just days after the announcement of a monster nonprofit in San Francisco, Shafer, a champion curmudgeon (and I mean that in a good way), writes:

...before we get out the party hats and noise-makers to celebrate the rise of nonprofit journalism, here's the bad news. In the current arrangement, we're substituting one flawed business model for another. For-profit newspapers lose money accidentally. Nonprofit news operations lose money deliberately. No matter how good the nonprofit operation is, it always ends up sustaining itself with handouts, and handouts come with conditions.

After quoting MinnPost boss Joel Kramer — who, by the way, most emphatically does not want to lose money deliberately — Shafer notes,

No comprehensive content analysis of foundation-funded journalism has been produced. ... both nonprofit news and commercial news often find themselves constrained by the hidden agendas of their masters. Just as commercially supported journalists often find themselves dispatched to investigate the owners' hobbyhorses, nonprofit newsers are frequently assigned to "chase after the idiosyncratic whims of funders."

I'll let Joel defend himself elsewhere, but I'll admit our politics, media and sports coverage do reflect the guy's passions. Conveniently, they, along with health, science and global coverage, are the biggest hit-getters here. Maybe I was hired because my preoccupations match his, but he's never altered my copy to fit an agenda, including this piece. (Which, full disclosure, you're likely reading before he does.)

Righties will say we're all a bunch of liberals, but I can tell you Joel, a former DFL lieutenant governor candidate, is far more preoccupied with finding conservative contributors than some of us.

(If you can write, report, and take an edit, please contact him.)

Shafer goes on to assert:

Commercial outlets may reflect their owners' views, but this tendency is always tempered by the need to attract readers and viewers. Nonprofit outlets almost always measure their success in terms of influence, not audience, because their customers are the donors who've donated cash to influence politics, promote justice, or otherwise build a better world.

I'm in full agreement with Shafer that both approaches have their pitfalls. We're all subject to the tyranny of those who pay the bills. Still, asserting the supremacy of commercial media here is absurdly balmy.

Nonprofits don't care about audience size? Don't tell Kramer that. As part of his break-even business plan, he seems to think we can get by without foundation support in a few years. The means attracting donors, which means attracting "readers and viewers." It also means attracting ads. Mega-ditto.

But one advantage of our business model, if you discount the vast differences in scale, is that we are less dependent on advertisers than daily newspapers. If I have to serve somebody, I'd rather be subject to the tyranny of members than advertisers. Shafer doesn't even mention that "tempering" commercial influence, though anyone in a commercial newsroom knows it lurks.

Unlike Texas Tribune founder John Thornton, who wants to bury Shafer, I merely want to tweak his conceits. He references criticisms that lower-paid nonprofit journalists drive down salaries. But until we get much bigger, we're an effect, not a cause of an existing mainstream-media trend.

(I should mention that my $50,000 full-time equivalent salary comes with health care and a 401k. And I'm not the only employee here in this category.)

My beef with MinnPost is we don't break more news and bust more heads. We're not the only ones I feel that way about, and I don't think that's a function of the model.

In the end, Shafer writes that "the rise of nonprofit journalism comes at a price. Be prepared to pay it." Fair enough. But don't overpay.

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Comments (3)

A good piece, very insightful. But I would argue that nonprofit news media, at least the ones I work at, don't lose money deliberately. We can't. And we care very much about audience and readership. That's what helps us sell ads.

I wish sometimes folks would look more at the history and maybe take some lessons from that. The Twin Cities is where nonprofit journalism began, in one sense. The old West Side/West St. Paul Voice was the first nonprofit newspaper in the United States, founded in about 1974. It was one of a wave of nonprofit publications founded during an era when inner city neighborhoods needed a voice to organize around issues and distribute information. (I define these papers as stand-alone operations, not as newsletters for other community groups.)

But what we found in the years since the Voice began is that funders of any type are reluctant to grant general operating funds to ANY type of nonprofit for too long. The Voice at one point got Ramsey Action Program funding, The Alley in Phillips neighborhood was operated by a VISTA volunteer. The old North End News and Frogtown Forum were operated at various points by nuns, with support from parishes. Some of the St. Paul papers also had United Way funding for a time.

But as more nonprofits formed and there were more demands for operating funds, foundations began to direct themselves more toward special projects and away from operations. (I remember a former neighborhood paper editor telling me how that if you didn't have a job, you should start a nonprofit.)

Another factor was problems with papers themselves. If I recall correctly, the United Way in St. Paul stopped funding papers after a failed startup of a paper for Frogtown neighborhood.

And papers always ran fund drives. I thing the old Southeast paper did an anti-bake sale (as i, we won't bake for you) as a fund-raiser.

My point is, maybe it's worth looking at those old models and seeing what worked and what didn't.

Here's a problem with this piece, both in terms of whom it quotes and how it responds. The quote runs, "Nonprofit news operations lose money deliberately. No matter how good the nonprofit operation is, it always ends up sustaining itself with handouts, and handouts come with conditions."

Both the author of this piece and the authority quoted are unconcerned about the use of the idea of "handouts" as a description of contributions made to nonprofits. Only those products that are the result of (successful) profit seeking are properly fundsed or supported, on this view. And why should we believe that? One look at television, including network news, makes that a very dubious assumption. but Schafer and to some degree Brauer seemed to have swallowed it whole. If anything, we should be a little suspicious of stuff that is allegedly 'good for us' produced by the profit motive.

"He references criticisms that lower-paid nonprofit journalists drive down salaries."

Um, not so much. ProPublica pays its top two editors collectively more than US$1 million.[1]

Disclosure: I've recently applied for a job at ProPublica.

[1] ProPublica's 990 filed in mid-August: http://s3.amazonaws.com/propublica/assets/docs/990_filed_090814.pdf