Prof. Penelope Muse Abernathy of the J-School at UNC-Chapel Hill has done a thorough analysis of how the model could be applied to The New York Times.
Abernathy examines four possible solutions for saving the Times and its parent company from annihilation when the next big payment is due in two years. Three are nonprofit (an endowment, foundational support, ownership by an educational institution) and the last would preserve a for-profit model (purchase by an "angel" investor).
I won't spoil the plot by telling you which model she prefers. But her analysis does speak to the difficulty of preserving the print product for the long haul and - I think - argues for using the nonprofit model as a Star Trek-style escape pod for enterprise and investigative journalism until the day a successful for-profit model is developed.
Interestingly, Abernathy's foundational support model envisions funding for some high-social-value news desks (e.g., foreign) - and an ensuing food fight over resources within the newsroom:
Who determines, for example, what is a foreign desk expense vs. a national desk expense? Are the salary and expenses of the reporter who covers the State Department assigned to the foreign desk or the Washington bureau?
I'm more inclined to take a half-full view of this problem. In a recent post on the NYT's blog page, Geneva Overholser talks about newspapers' evolving role as aggregators of news from various sources. The aggregation of reporting and information from many sources will be a central function of newspaper companies. So these kinds of turf issues could be solved quickly - especially when the alternative is near-certain extinction. She writes:
Of course, newspapers have to make clear their own reporting from that of community sources, and set standards for selecting its partners. These changes will be difficult for newspapers which have considered themselves the primary newsgathers, but they may lead to the next chapter of American journalism.
And there is some early evidence that a highly collaborative model - even beyond what Overholser suggests - can work. Earlier this month, a reporter from The Washington Post teamed up with a colleague from ProPublica.org to produce an investigation of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's oversight of the New York Fed.
But we digress. Abernathy's paper is worth a read. And it will be a topic of discussion at a conference on nonprofit media ownership May 4-5 at Duke University.