Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Council on Foreign Relations Model

I had a chance recently to chat with Penny Abernathy, the UNC-Chapel Hill professor who recently presented a paper on four nonprofit models for The New York Times. The paper, for those who haven't read it, presents itself modestly, but is nothing short of a roadmap to survival for newspapers that take investigative and watchdog reporting seriously.

Abernathy spent her early career as a reporter, and it shows: Her paper, presented at a conference at Duke University, is scrupulously evenhanded, and it's nearly impossible to tell which if any of the four models she presents she likes or dislikes. But as we talked, it became clear she sees great promise in a nonprofit model for newspapers based on the Council on Foreign Relations, the venerable New York think tank.

The way Abernathy sees it, a CFR-type nonprofit could be set up by a handful of major newspapers as a home for topic-expert reporters who would share their work across media. Rather than limiting them to one venue - the newspaper - the nonprofit could continue to employ them as they move from breaking news to magazine-style story to published book - collecting revenue all along the way. And like CFR, the nonprofit could host conferences and pull in corporate sponsorships as well.

To be clear, Abernathy did not single out this as a solution to the challenges faced by the Times. The hardest part about getting newspapers on board is getting their editors to stop thinking in terms of scoops and exclusives, she said. "They're still thinking the old way," she said.

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