Monday, June 22, 2009

Salvation, Sustenance and Sustainability

One of the truths I'm beginning to recognize from this perch is that the world of nonprofit journalism can be divided into many dichotomies - haves v. have-nots, national v. regional, specialty v. general interest, for examples.

Here's another that might sound like a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but I think speaks to the long-term prospects and viability of the nonprofit model: The divide between those who seek salvation and those who merely want sustenance.

Among the former are those who regard newspapers as institutions that should be saved for their value as institutions - their gravitas and unique ability to call out elected leaders, industries and other institutions that on occasion might behave badly. For them, there is the "conversion" model in which a switch to nonprofit status is regarded as an end in itself - a new status in which losses can be tolerated because owners will not expect profits.

In my mind, this is a short-term approach that ignores the enormous pressures weighing on newspapers and other "legacy" media. It might get a troubled company through a few more years, but it doesn't solve the core problem - which, as Phil Meyer noted in 2004, is not how to save newspapers, but how to save the socially responsible journalism that they produce. This is not to say that the conversion model - as touted by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and others - won't work, but it needs to be a means, not an end.

The latter group - those seeking sustenance - sees nonprofit status as a means. Their plan is to get established, build a brand and an audience, and then do some focused experimentation with tools that can lead them to long-term sustainability, either as nonprofits or as nonprofits with for-profit subsidiaries. Generally, these are people who embrace new technology and its power to build communities. For them, nonprofit status is a means to expand the definition of socially responsible journalism.

As John Thornton, creator of the soon-to-be Texas Tribune, put it in his blog (and forgive me for quoting a post that quotes me):

Furthermore, I’ve learned this lesson more than once in my day job: it’s generally easier to start from scratch than it is to convince an existing organization to adopt a new strategy (and some new management). ... Glomming such an effort onto something else just wouldn’t work.

As for newspapers, it may be that the best path is toward a hybrid model - where for-profit newspaper channel resources provided by foundations and other nonprofits. For a clear picture of how this model might play out in a newsroom, I recommend a column written last month by John Drescher, executive editor of my alma mater, The News & Observer.

John strikes the right note for newspapers when he conclude: "The more reporters on the street (or in the lab, the courts or the classroom), the better."

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