Thursday, June 4, 2009

Interview: Phil Bennett

If nonprofits are to transform the ailing news business, their investigative reporting must “enter the discussion in a really forceful way. … Impact is what is going to define success,” says Phil Bennett, former managing editor of The Washington Post.

So far, that hasn’t happened, Bennett says. New, high-profile forays into investigative journalism haven’t taken the place of what the nation’s biggest newspapers are still doing, he says. And to some extent, they compete.

Meanwhile, major philanthropic support has bypassed smaller communities, where it is needed most, he says. The Post, for example, easily could raise $5 million or more to endow its investigative desk. But what about the Kansas City Star or other smaller papers?

“I think what is happening is that the organizations that have the least amount of need for it are the most attractive to donors,” he said. That disconnect is among the “contradictions that have to shake themselves out.”

Bennett, who will begin teaching at Duke University this fall, was asked in an interview to discuss how newsroom executives view the emerging nonprofit sector in journalism – and the extent to which they might employ nonprofit models in the reporting of news, particularly enterprise and investigative.

In his new job at Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, Bennett will be at the forefront of a major new effort to address the “fundamental market failures” that threaten enterprise and investigative journalism. Among other things, the center is investigating how the nonprofit model might lead to solutions.

Converting existing newspapers into nonprofits isn’t among them, Bennett says. Journalists tend to think that by shifting a newspaper to nonprofit status, it becomes okay to lose tens of millions of dollars a year, he says. But that’s not so. If anything, tax laws that apply to nonprofits would expose newspapers to greater public scrutiny of their finances.

“Nonprofit status does not solve the current business crisis,” Bennett says. “The conversion model doesn’t convince me.”

Beneath Bennett’s top layer of skepticism about the nonprofit model replacing newspaper journalism runs a deep vein of ideas for how nonprofits might partner with traditional news organizations.

Journalism nonprofits work best when they grow organically to address a community need – and when they are “niche-y,” Bennett says. By that, he means they should address a specific community defined either by geography or a special interest such as health, or more specifically, diabetes.

Another possibility for the nonprofit model is that newspapers might shore up their standing as aggregators of community interests – if not their finances, as well – by spinning off nonprofits, he says. For example, after its series on the abuses at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital, the Post might have spun off a nonprofit site that is dedicated to veterans’ health issues.

Bennett is among a growing consensus that believes a truly new business model that supports enterprise and investigative journalism has yet to manifest itself, regardless of whether newspapers are the medium. And as for a nonprofit model that works for newspapers, he says, “We’re waiting for a model to replicate.”

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