There have been countless examples in recent years of nonprofit news organizations launching, from ProPublica to the Texas Tribune. But there are few examples of struggling news outlets converting to nonprofit status or being purchased by nonprofits. Mother Jones publisher Steve Katz explores why this strategy may work for a chain of local papers in California:
Managing local papers for short-term profit is the end of local newspapers. Managing local newspapers for the long run, based on deeper engagement with the local community, is the future of local journalism.
Like Mother Jones, CIR is a nonprofit organization, but with a sharp eye for the need to build out a dynamic business model. With increasingly diverse revenue streams, CIR is looking more and more like the kind of organization that MoJo’s been for a while — a hybrid, with a mix of earned (circulation, ads, syndication, consulting, events, etc.) revenue and philanthropic revenue.
This kind of economic model allows you to manage for the long run, to build an institution and a community of interest among people who care about the work — that’s why they’d give dollars to it. When this happens, a journalism outfit can begin to attract advertisers who want to get their stuff in front of a motivated audience who trust the journalism brand. No, it’s not easy. Yes, it can work.
The future of print remains what? Try to imagine a world where the future of print is unclear: Maybe 25 year olds will start demanding news from yesterday, delivered in an unshareable format once a day. Perhaps advertisers will decide “Click to buy” is for wimps. Mobile phones: could be a fad. After all, anything could happen with print. Hard to tell, really.
Belt Magazine’s Laura Putre recalls her early journalism years writing for a Cleveland alt weekly in the 80s and documents the rise of the liberal, sometimes radical, alt weeklies that sprung up in conservative cities that badly needed them. It’s interesting to see the philosophical approach of different alt weekly editors; some thought opinionated columns were a waste of time and focused on hard-hitting journalism while others thought the columns were what gave them a truly alternative voice that distinguished them from their daily counterparts:
More than Detroit, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh, Republican-dominated Cincinnati was hurting for a liberal publication. “The Enquirer was conservative and the Post was sort of middle of the road—it wasn’t anywhere near being liberal,” says [CityBeat editor John Fox]. Fox and [CityBeat investor Tom Schiff] made a good team because Schiff, the money man, wasn’t interested in meddling in the paper’s political coverage. That was Fox’s department.
“I know that first year, we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and had very few ads,” says Fox. “But we got the critical mass going—most of the arts organizations and music clubs backed us right away. Then the restaurants came along as well. It always takes a while for the more established people—the car dealers and banks and retail stores to come around—because this is a hippie newspaper and the word ‘fuck’ is in there so it’s like giving money to devil worshippers.” A right-to-life group and an anti-gay marriage group called Citizens for Community values “used to hound us all the time,” Fox remembers.
There is a relationship between Pulitzer Prizes and circulation (the correlation is .53 among the 50 newspapers listed here). It’s just that this relationship hasn’t changed much from 10 years ago. The vast majority of newspapers have seen their circulations decline; the ones that win a lot of Pulitzers have suffered about as much as the ones that don’t. You could spin this result as a negative for high-quality journalism — newspapers that win Pulitzers are doing no better at retaining their readers — or as a positive — almost all newspapers are struggling, but the ones that win Pulitzers continue to have more readers.