The New York Review of Books has met the future of journalism and it’s buried inside a 5,200-word essay that I’m finally getting through. Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo gets the nod as “the one site that has turned a profit without the aid of print or a sponsor.” (He means the gracious patron kind of sponsor, not the advertising kind. TPM , as our readers know, has recently taken funding for the first time.) But it’s nonprofit journalism — the intentional sort — that leaves author Michael Massing “heartened.” He singles out an NYT Op-Ed, about using endowments to save some newspapers, as the starting point for much of the “excited activity.” It’s a tidy milestone but nonprofit action was well under way on a lot of fronts before David Swenson and Michael Schmidt suggested endowments as economic penicillin.
Massing sees great potential (or, looked at another way, a great mirage) in a nonprofit web of journalism with NPR as a backbone, bolstered by a re-thought PBS into some kind of “truly national noncommercial news system, akin to the BBC” but without government funding: “What we do have, though, is a tremendous increase in enthusiasm and initiative that, in the age of the Internet, counts for more than transmitters and printing presses. The retreat of the giant corporations and conglomerates is creating the opportunity for fresh structures to emerge. It remains to be seen whether foundations, wealthy donors, and news consumers will step forward to support them.”
Massing mentions some of the financial realities. As the MinnPost’s Joel Kramer explains: “Even on a nonprofit site, you have to find ways to make enough money to cover the costs.” What I don’t see — and I could be missing it in the torrent — is any mention of how the double whammy of the economic meltdown and Bernie Madoff’s massive fraud has hit the nonprofit world. The collapse of private fortunes, the depletion of endowments, the financial erosion makes this one of the toughest times for fundraising in recent memory. Nonprofit journalism may be relieved from the profit-margin pressure of commercial counterparts but not from economic reality.
Sidenote: The NYT‘s Bill Keller responded swiftly to being offered up as “Massing’s old-media straw man.” Keller’s take on the nonprofits: “I hope ventures like ProPublica, Voice of San Diego, and Global Post, which now rely on philanthropy, venture capital, and/or the sacrifices of journalists willing to work for poverty-line wages, will find more sustainable business models. I expect the best of the new ventures will forge alliances to supply some of the important and costly services a company like the Times provides, such as safe workplaces in countries at war, and lawyers to fight FOIA cases and fend off lawsuits by powerful subjects. Journalistic institutions will become nimbler, and new ventures will become somewhat more institutional. At least, that’s my guess.” The Times has already partnered with ProPublica.