A major goal of ProPublica, perhaps the nation's highest-profile nonprofit news organization, is to create "nothing less than a new class of cultural institution in this country," Paul Steiger, its high-profile executive editor, told the Federal Trade Commission's conference on the future of journalism this morning.
That's pretty lofty stuff. And it would seem to carry a lot of implications not only for how news is created, but the regard in which a news organization is held by community leaders. Does that mean it would operate like a major metropolitan opera or a symphony? Exactly how would it build that kind of image and gravitas? And what kind of fundraising would it do? How would it work with for-profit legacy media?
I left the morning session still wondering because Steiger didn't address any of those questions with any kind of detail. In his 15 minutes, pretty much all he said about the nonprofit model was that he doesn't think the government should change tax law to help nonprofit news organizations and that other than doing great journalism, fundraising is ProPublica's greatest challenge. Most of what we heard for 14 and 1/2 minutes was the same tale of woe about the demise of newspapers as social watchdogs and what great stuff ProPublica is doing to help fill the void.
I guess I expected more from the leader of what many outsiders regard as the flagship of nonprofit journalism. The model is poorly understood by many, and is often attacked with arguments that don't hold water. One of my favorites is that nonprofits simply will bend to pressure to produce news that big donors want to read -- as if a newspaper never skewed its coverage to please an advertiser.
The big problem is that a lot of journalists and publishers see nonprofits as a kind of shabby, tin-cup substitute for a real news organization. Coming as he did from his stellar career at The Wall Street Journal, Steiger knows better than anybody how the nonprofit model works as a business -- its pros, its cons and how it might play a role (or several kinds of roles) in replacing what is being lost with the crumbling of the newspaper business model. Developing a cultural institution is a great vision for what the nonprofit model can be. But it can't be a throwaway line.
I was impressed last month by CUNY's Jeff Jarvis and his insistence on developing models with specificity. Jarvis' approach is that even if the vision is wrong, discussing in some detail about how it might work is the best way to find what will work. Jarvis spent considerable time developing new business models for news, including one for the nonprofit sector. But he's mostly interested in a for-profit solution. Somebody in with great stature in the news business needs to take up the cause of the nonprofit model and begin explaining what it can do.
Paul Steiger should be that person.