Wednesday, May 13, 2009

New America: Who Pays For The News?

A thoughtful, well-attended forum this morning at the New America Foundation: "Who Pays For The News?" It ran nearly four hours, but most of the 100+ people there stayed throughout.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., author of the Newspaper Revitalization Act, was the keynote. But the highlight was the second panel on "nonprofit media and the role of philanthropy." Not that they had any new answers to the central question - they mostly agreed that nobody is willing to pay - but they did offer up a a good dose of clear thinking on where this is all headed.

Perhaps the clearest of all was John Thornton, a venture capitalist from Austin, who has taken a thoroughly businesslike look at journalism and concluded two things: 1. It is a "wretched" business (hope he didn't invest a lot of money finding that out) and 2. no for-profit model will support the kind of enterprise and investigative work that is being lost with the demise of the newspaper model.

But rather than walk away from the business, Thornton has doubled down on the idea of pursuing journalism as a public good. He plans to launch Texas Tribune, which will focus on policy issues and politics from the state capital. The site,, is parked for now. But Thornton hopes to have a dozen reporters on staff by 2011 and to have the same kind of impact on state politics that had on the 2008 presidential race. He told the New America audience that he has raised $2 million (including $1 million of his own money) toward his goal of $4 million.

Thornton doesn't refer to his endeavor as "nonprofit journalism," but rather as "nontaxable journalism." His model for success is Minnesota Public Radio, which has built a veritable media empire around its programming and is supported in part by a for-profit subsidiary, Greenspring Co., with annual sales of $16 million. The main difference between Texas Tribune and a for-profit outlet, he said, is that every extra dollar earned will go back into the product.

On a related topic, Thornton rained on the idea of a "low-profit limited liability company," or L3C. It's a new category of corporation that straddles the line between for-profit and nonprofit enterprise. There has been some discussion that the L3C could be a workable model for journalism. But Thornton said he thinks a hybrid would be ungovernable - just imagine the board meeting, he said. "It's horrible," he said. "It's confused."

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