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Star Tribune editor: We’d take charity for investigative projects

Will the Strib take money from nonprofits to fund its best journalism?
By David Brauer

Hey, no stealing our business model!

Ex-Star Tribune reporter David Westphal, writing in the Online Journalism Review, quotes current Strib editor Nancy Barnes saying she’d take money from foundations and other charitable groups to keep the bankrupt paper’s investigative stories flowing.

“What we need most as a newspaper is investigative help,” she says. “If I could get some non-profit funding for that, it’s a plus… That’s the part that must survive.”

I’d snark about this, except it’s how I make some of my coin. OJR’s sponsoring organization, the Knight Foundation, kicks in generous support for MinnPost (beyond our advertisers and members) and encourages other nonprofits to do so. They also just lobbed a $2.9 million grant at MPR’s national cousin American Public Media, to expand citizen sourcing networks. I can’t blame Barnes for casting a covetous eye at that.

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Journalism has long been a private good, paid for by readers and advertisers. But with private money dissipating, it must become more of a public good, assuming we want to preserve a certain level of coverage. Since most media outlets would reject government help, that leaves foundations and nonprofits.

And that raises a ton of questions. Do we want to preserve existing organizations, or fund alternatives without baggage? And how much do we want non-profits funding journalism at all, given society’s growing needs? (Pew and Knight, at least, have journalism-focused missions.)

Another hurdle: the Strib is a for-profit, which means you could wind up subsidizing owners Avista Capital Partners (or now, creditors) not McEnroe and Kennedy. (Avista didn’t do itself any favors in the nonprofit community when it promptly closed the Strib’s foundation post-purchase.) Westphal also notes costlier legal requirements for nonprofits giving to private businesses.

Still, he suggests this is not an insurmountable obstacle. The Pew Center for Civic Journalism disbursed 120 grants to mainstream news organizations between 1993 and 2002, and a Knight Foundation spokesperson says his organization is willing to consider innovative ideas from for-profits. One of the new big-deal journalism nonprofits, ProPublica, has partnered with traditional news organizations to expand the investigative capacity of both. So there’s precedent out there.

Even amid financial chaos, Barnes has boasted about boosting investigative work; last week, the paper added reporter Pam Louwagie to its I-team. Maybe a paper still making an operating profit should throw its first dollar at investigative work, and cut something less vital.

Still, the financial threat is real, and while I love working for a fresh new start-up, traditional organizations retain tremendous civic value. If we could somehow keep the cash away from bottom-feeding financiers and consultants, I say go for it, Nancy. May what’s best for the public win.