Sweet Charity

One model for newspapers that is doing the rounds is the non-profit: turn the whole thing into a charity with an endowment. This argument now has a locus classicus, here at the New York Times last week, by two investment managers. “Many newspapers will not weather the digital storm on their own. Only a handful of foundations and wealthy individuals have the money required to endow, and thereby preserve, our nation’s premier news-gathering organizations.” Their article is in part a response to concern about the future of the New York Times. Writing in the New Yorker, Steve Coll responds with the same argument for another newspaper: “Ever since I left the Washington Post, in 2005… I have been mulling over this idea: that only by turning the Post into a nonprofit trust and raising a university-size endowment to support the newsroom could the paper retain the vitality it requires to serve as a successful watchdog over our constitutional system.”

A good response comes from an editor with experience on the other side, Jonathan Weber at New West. “I certainly don’t argue with the proposition that good journalism is important to society – on the contrary.  But the solution du jour – that newspapers should be run as non-profit organizations – strikes me as cop-out. We’re only in the early innings of figuring out how new business models might replace the industrial-age structures of traditional newspapers, and we’re already throwing in the towel. Warren Buffet has a few extra billion, so there’s an easy fix!” Weber (ex-LAT, Industry Standard) set up New West as a specifically online venture to cover the Rocky Mountain West area.

Newsosaur also questions the business logic here. And indeed on the NYT site some of the readers letters question the argument that if it became a non-profit the Times couldn’t engage in policy issues in the same way.


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