July 25th, 2006

Journalism Should Be Nonprofit


Jay Rosen proposes a new model for jouralism — “In simplest terms, a way to fund high-quality, original reporting, in any medium, through donations to a non-profit called NewAssignment.Net.” What jumps out at me, beyond the effort to empower “pro-am, open-source” journalism, is that it’s a nonprofit endeavor, driven by donations.

Jay empahsizes that NewAssignment.Net is not like NPR because the “professionals” don’t control how the money is spent — I certainly support this structured experiement with open-source (citizen) journalism. But I think Jay’s real breakthrough is conceding that journalism is not — an in fact never was — a for-profit business. Jouranlism has always been subsidized, whether by the pure commerce of classified ads or the mass media monopoly of the old network newscast. But in a fragmented, contextual world, nobody wants to advertise next to stories of death and despair in the Middle East. But those stories need to be told as a public service — and what better way to fund a public service than through a mission-oriented nonprofit.

There would be no more need to lay off journalists, no more need to push the boundaries of the old business/editorial Chinese wall.

I like the way Jeff Jarvis characterizes it:

It begins with an article a few articles faith. First: The public will support journalism and investigation. Second: The public will then want more of a voice and a role in that reporting. Third: Given the opportunity to have more of a voice and role, the public will contribute more support. It’s a virtuous circle, if it works.

Regardless of what you think of NPR and BBC coverage, they are completely rational organizations because news is their mission, not their business. And that’s why Jay’s model could be just the ticket. Don’t like NPR’s coverage? Then donate to journalists who you think will tell the story that’s not being told.

I should caveat this by saying that local news could still be a for-profit business if it’s strongly linked to local commerce and local community. Pegasus News, for example, is working on a new local news business model. The local papers that survive will be those that succeed in reinventing their businesses — which is going to require some brave innovation. And there is still room for Jay’s model to work alongside the local news businesses that do survive and/or emerge.

But the tough work of investigative journalism and reporting from war zones should transition as much as possible to the nonprofit model where it won’t have Wall Street and corporate profit motives compromising this public service that is so essential for a democratic society.

  • Dhyana/Graham/Mark,

    I can understand why you recoil at these ideas. Maybe Jay's open-source vision is far-fetched. Maybe you do need an NPR with "professionals" stearing the ship.

    But I maintain my view that publishing serious journalism as a for-profit business is a tough business.

    In a fragmented world some journalists may be able to find funding independently but in the main journalism will continue to be subsidised by publishers who are aware that investigative and quality journalism has its place in the media mix.

    The subsidy is precisely the problem. I think the days when for-profit publishers can afford to subsidize "investigative and quality journalism" may be coming to an end.

    Whether it's taxpayer subsidies, donations to centralized or decentralized nonprofits, or even publishers setting up nonprofit foundations, the mission of serious journalism may best be achieved the same as all other public services.

  • As Dhyana mentions, the Rosen vision is hellish utopian.

    He cites Christopher Albritton's Back to Iraq - http://www.back-to-iraq.com/ - donation driven blog journalism as a major influence. Sandeep Junnarkar's Lives in focus - http://www.livesinfocus.org/ - is another fine, lesser known, example involving less money.

    It appears Rosen wants newassignment.net to become the default site for donation driven blog journalism projects like these - whatever the topic, wherever the story and whoever works on it. That's not gonna happen. The Junnarkar's and Albritton's of this world will continue to want to do it on their own, on their own terms, maybe in collaboration with a trusted partner, but I would guess, not with the rather cumbersome, very 'American', method Rosen suggests.

    Having said that I do think it is a fantastic idea, but it's a turkey. It's a therorists answer to new journalism, it's not a practioner's answer and without practioners it won't work.

  • Thanks for the kind words about Pegasus News, Scott.

    And although I hadn't thought down this train, it is another good example of how the logic and rules that apply to national/international media are almost entirely differente when you get down to the local level.

    More food for my thought...

  • The BBC is not supported by donations, but by direct taxation. In the UK, if you do not have a TV license you will be fined, or go to jail, even if you do not use BBC services in any way. The government funding of the BBC gives rise to potential conflicts of interest beyond those when news is funded by corporations.

    It is not true that companies do not want to advertise next to war stories. All major media carry ads next to such stories. It is unlikely that any particular advertiser would have the desire or need to influence the presentation of news from war zones. If an investigative journalists encountered a conflict of interest they can switch to a media outlet that does not have a conflict.

    Rosen, like many bloggers, devalues the publisher's role. It is no revelation that journalists are generally non-profit, but trying to remove for-profit publishers from the equation will not help journalism. What Rosen proposes should not be seen as a replacement for the current news business model. In a fragmented world some journalists may be able to find funding independently but in the main journalism will continue to be subsidised by publishers who are aware that investigative and quality journalism has its place in the media mix.

  • Indulging your utopian bent - I'd rather trust the harsh competitive environment and advertising-funded journalism than nonprofit experiments. The reason for this? Donations won't add up.

    I hardly know where to start here ...

    It seems the ideas of "pro-am" and "open source" journalism are mangled together here. The idea of "pro-am" is interesting. I see potential in a pro-am approach to journalism. But the premise presented here seems too anti-professional.

    Open-source journalism certainly has its place ... but I don't think it's in international breaking news or war zones. High-quality reporting provided by the citizenry funded by altruistic donations is far-fetched. It sounds more like unprofessional chaos - hard to trust. Who is going to decide which journalism gets paid for? Is there a vote on what should be covered? Is it journalism by majority opinion? The "tyranny of the masses"? There's got to be professionals here - at least community-designated ones. They have a key role to play.

    Financially, who controls how the money will be spent? Not professionals? Is there another vote?

    And who's going to cover the Middle East? Don't you think it would be nearly impossible to do a good job covering the Middle East without professionals working on it? Of course, you could let those that live there voluntarily cover the story by giving their stories an outlet, and professional experts on the region could lend their opinion, but who do you trust? How do you know what level of trust to give the open-source journalism that has only been published so far for perhaps the last hour? I understand that in software, improvements and bug fixes are the end-result of open-source development, as many eyes gradually identify and fix problems. But in journalism? Is there really time to let a thousand people full of different agendas reshape a story until it's correct?

    I like NPR ... a lot. But they're clearly professionals. Are you perhaps suggesting that NPR could localize its content through citizen journalism in a pro-am approach?

    You say journalism is not a for-profit business. Well, how does a news organization fund really good journalism unless it has profits to help fund it?

    Donations for citizen journalists? I don't think so. I would donate to NPR long before I donated to an organization like you describe. And that's because they're professional.

    Would there be no more need to lay off journalists in your view because they've already been laid off? I'm just curious ...

    This whole concept is too fuzzy for me.

    An aside ... I say donations won't add up. You say ad dollars won't ad up. Are we headed for an era of mass unpaid journalism of poor quality? Or is there room for a lot of different models each filling their own niche? That's where my money would be bet.

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