Monday, April 20, 2009

The Trouble with Nonprofit Journalism

A thoughtful and well-argued critique of the nonprofit model as salvation for the newspaper industry comes from Jonathan Weber at NewWest.Net. The essence of his argument against taking the nonprofit road is that it does not require journalists to make news decisions that are grounded in the market of reader demand. As he puts it:
For the core problem that non-profit journalism will never be able to solve properly is deciding what is worthy. In a business, the customers ultimately decide what is worthy, for better and for worse.

Weber goes on to give examples of the many ways in which the nonprofit model can break down when applied to newspapers.
Does the non-profit newspaper cover sports? Why? How about movies? Surely the market is filling the need for sports and movie coverage. But if not movies, why theatre, or dance, or opera? How about personal finance? Do we need endowed newspapers to give us trendy advice about our personal spending and saving habits, when huge racks of books and countless magazines and Web sites all offer the same trendy advice? As Michael Hirschhorn ably noted in his Atlantic story about the future of the New York Times, the whole lifestyle end of the mainstream newspaper package throws an odd cog into the question of the public good.

While Weber's post makes a good point here about the need to address the market of reader demand, it ignores the fact that journalists working in newsrooms of for-profit newspapers rarely are confronted with these kinds of decisions - and when they are, they tend to freak out about publisher influence on newsroom decisions.

This argument also sets up a straw man with regard to extending the newspaper model to the Web. Not a lot people see nonprofits - especially those operating solely on the Web - replacing every aspect of a newspaper. Rather, nonprofits may be best suited to replace the explanatory, enterprise and investigative journalism that can't be fully underwritten by online advertising.

For that kind of work, "the for-profit model may be broken forever," says Matt James, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and a founder of Kaiser Health News.

No comments:

Post a Comment