by Daniel Akst
Removing the Pressure of the Bottom Line
When newsgathering isn't tied into company profits, does journalism—and the public—benefit?
In the media cacophony that is New York, whoever heard of Gotham Gazette? Apparently lots of people. The web site, devoted to news of the city and its neighborhoods, gets more than 105,000 unique visitors per month. "In May ," says Sara Stuart, Gotham's director of marketing and communications, "when you Googled 'New York City politics,' Gotham Gazette was the first of 26 million results."
National Public Radio (NPR), by contrast, is a household name. In the early 1980s it had only two million weekly listeners, but since then what was once the province of a band of self-selected cognoscenti has grown into nothing short of a mass phenomenon. NPR now reports 26 million weekly listeners--a figure that has doubled in just the past decade. NPR programming reaches listeners on more than 780 independent public radio stations blanketing the country, not to mention on the Internet.
Gotham Gazette and NPR are both fast-growing media organizations, but they have something more interesting in common: they are both private, not-for-profit organizations. In fact, at a time of growing concern over whether quality journalism and high profit margins can continue to coexist in the traditional media, nonprofit journalism is flourishing.
From individual bloggers to influential public affairs magazines, from community newspapers to broadcasting outlets, nonprofit media are multiplying in number, increasing their audiences and stretching the boundaries of journalism itself. Thanks to the Internet, barriers to entry into the news business may well be lower than at any time since wandering minstrels carried news from place to place in verse. And while nonprofits can't ignore markets any more than they can ignore budgets, a news organization that hopes only to break even can focus less on what will sell and more on the kinds of coverage it believes society needs. Thus, while for-profit broadcasters appear to have scaled back their commitment to news, NPR has been adding journalists and ramping up coverage.
Of course, profit and excellence in the media are hardly mutually exclusive. The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, which deploy masses of relatively well-paid professional journalists and maintain the highest standards, are all profit-seeking enterprises that also produce enormous social good. Princeton University sociologist and Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Starr, in his 2004 study, The Creation of the Media (Basic Books), is clear-eyed about the role of profit in all this, observing that, in general, "Markets in liberal societies enrich the public sphere far more than they impoverish it."
But in some situations the market mechanism--pressured by cultural, social and political changes--may not always be adequate, and some thoughtful people are suggesting that this is the case with respect to the profit-oriented media that dominate the American news landscape. The traditional postwar mainstays of American news--the big three television networks and the many daily newspapers that provide most local coverage--seem to be caught in a dispiriting cycle of cutbacks and declining audiences that they lack the ability to break. At the same time, consolidation and the decline of family ownership have left media organizations subject to the same profit pressures as other publicly traded companies--despite the special mission media companies have always claimed for themselves. Under the circumstances, it's fair to ask whether the news organizations of today--and tomorrow--are up to the task of sustaining the informed citizenry on which democracy depends.
"I think there is a fundamental role for nonprofit entities in our media system," says Robert McChesney, a University of Illinois communications professor who founded a nonprofit organization of his own (freepress.org) to advocate media reform. To critics like McChesney, the problem is a consequence of concentration and the obligations public companies of all kinds have to their shareholders. McChesney argues that the current system "is set up to maximize profit for a relative handful of large companies. The system works well for them, but it is a disaster for the communication needs of a healthy and self-governing society."
James T. Hamilton, an economist and political scientist at Duke University whose works include All the News That's Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information into News (Princeton University Press, 2003), advocates outright nonprofit ownership as one of several means to generate more hard news coverage. "One way to increase the attention reporters pay to politics and government is to shift the objectives of some owners away from profit maximization," he writes. "A foundation concerned with the quantity and quality of public affairs coverage might decide to purchase or run a news outlet that emphasized hard news."
Sometimes when markets fail, the path is clear for government intervention and in fact, some advocates of a greater role for nonprofits support changes in tax and other public policies to promote this form of media ownership. In other advanced nations, after all, government plays a much bigger role, particularly in funding public broadcasting. In America, by contrast, the federal government only provides about fifteen percent of what is spent on public broadcasting, an amount roughly matched by the states. McChesney, for one, believes the most cost-effective way for nonprofits to improve the media is by focusing on government policy. He cites as a precedent the original Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, underwritten by Carnegie Corporation of New York during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson. The Commission's landmark report led to the creation of the U.S. public broadcasting system in 1967.
But there are times when markets fail and government can't fill the gap, particularly in the wary and decentralized American tradition, which makes even modest government funding for the arts controversial, let alone the kind of national television tax that pays for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Often, in such circumstances, private, nonprofit organizations can step effectively into the breach--and the seeming marketplace shortfall in quality journalism may be just the kind of breach they can ably help to fill. A shortage of quality television for kids was addressed in just this way when Carnegie Corporation commissioned the feasibility study (by Joan Ganz Cooney) that led to the birth of the children's Television Workshop--creator of Sesame Street.
Nonprofits have succeeded in other complex, costly and socially critical ventures, including most notably higher education. America's colleges and universities are decentralized, overwhelmingly not-for-profit, dependent on a mix of funding sources--and despite a little grade inflation, the envy of the world. What they supply is both vital and, with some rare exceptions, unavailable from profit-making businesses. In the media, "the nonprofit sector shows promise," affirms University of North Carolina journalism professor Philip Meyer, who wrote a book called The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism In The Information Age (University of Missouri Press, 2004). He observes that, rather than being left entirely to a competitive marketplace, news coverage in this country has long been buttressed by various kinds of charitable or government benefits. McChesney points out that low postal rates, broadcast licenses, local cable monopolies and even the nature of copyright protections are among the many government policies that subsidize and shape the American media outside the free market system.
Nonprofits can also help fill an important coverage gap inherent in the structure of America's advertising-driven media business model. Since daily newspapers, for example, get four-fifths of their revenue from advertising, the places that need coverage most--places where people don't have a lot of money--typically get it least. This is why newspapers in some places have dropped the names of their older, struggling host cities from their names--the better to follow their affluent readers to the suburbs. At the same time, papers "covering" entertainment, home design and restaurants have proliferated, all of them appealing to the affluent and many carrying nothing like news. Nonprofit media could pay more attention to the Americans who don't shop or eat out quite so much.
The role of nonprofits in the media is being taken seriously enough that last year it was the subject of a symposium (co-moderated by James Hamilton) at Louisiana State University's Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs, where discussion focused on five proposals:
- More media outlets should be operated by nonprofits, and government policy should support this.
- Foundations should subsidize information and analyses for journalists and for use in policy debates.
- The tax code and public policy generally should encourage individuals and families to own media companies.
- Public policy should encourage partisan media outlets supported by interest groups or political parties.
- The government should subsidize information about public affairs and the infrastructure to deliver it.
Such ideas are hardly mere academic fantasies. Nonprofits already deliver a lot more of our news than many people realize, and they have been doing so for a long time. The venerable Associated Press (AP) was founded in 1848 and now bills itself as "the largest and oldest news organization in the world." A mainstay of American journalism without which much of the nation's media simply could not function, AP is a not-for-profit cooperative of its member publishers and broadcasters, whose fees support a global network of 3,700 staff members-- some 2,500 of them journalists.
The Christian Science Monitor, meanwhile, has been publishing what a Boston Globe columnist called its "distinctive brand of nonhysterical journalism" on a nonprofit basis since 1908. Although down to just 59,000 subscribers and sorely tested by an unsuccessful TV venture, the paper has achieved great popularity on the Internet, where it gets 1.8 million individual users per month. Several local daily newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Times, the Delaware State News in Dover, and The Day in New London, Connecticut, are owned by nonprofits too. The New London paper has a bigger staff, higher salaries and more space for news than other papers of comparable size, according to a report last year in the American Journalism Review. A nonprofit organization called C-SPAN, meanwhile, has been giving cable television viewers unmediated access to Congressional debates and other government proceedings (as well as author talks, miscellaneous public affairs events and similarly meaty fare) since 1979. C-SPAN is funded by the cable television industry and, like AP, seeks neither profits nor government funding.
Across the Atlantic, not-for-profit journalism has a long and honorable history. The BBC is perhaps the best known non-commercial brand in the business worldwide, but it's less well known outside the United Kingdom that The Guardian, a respected national daily newspaper of decidedly liberal bent, is owned by the nonprofit Scott Trust, which was established in 1936 both to avoid death taxes and to sustain the old Manchester Guardian as an independent newspaper.
The Guardian model is interesting because it doesn't rely on any philanthropy beyond the Scott family's initial generous act. Instead, The Guardian and its Sunday sister, The Observer, are sustained by a variety of business ventures including regional newspapers, radio outlets and a set of special interest publications. The latter include a highly profitable automotive weekly and the United Kingdom's leading automotive web site. Thus, while The Guardian and The Observer have lost money for the past two fiscal years, the Guardian Media Group (which owns the Scott Trust's various media operations) has finished in the black.
While other newspapers in Britain have shifted to a tabloid format to appeal to readers, Guardian Media is spending more than #100 million (over $180 million) to relaunch the two national papers in a mid-size format because the editors opposed the rigid tabloid format. "There are times when both the Guardian and The Observer think it right to shout at their readers," writes Scott Trust chair Liz Forgan. "But the world they seek to report on is a complex one full of loud and soft, long and short and good journalism needs flexibility to do its job properly. Only by re-pressing completely, in a new size which was compact but big enough to allow more than one tone of voice on the front page and throughout the paper, could those journalistic ambitions be realized."
By the standards of American newspaper companies, the Guardian Media Group's pretax profits are modest: just three percent in the fiscal year ended April 3, 2005, nearly all of it attributable to asset sales. Pretax profits were seven percent in each of the two preceding years and two percent in 2002. In fiscal 2001 profits were a healthier fifteen percent, but much of this, too, was due to asset sales. Guardian Media Group chairman Paul Myners, writing in the company's 2004 annual report, makes no bones about what he's up to: "Our core objective is the protection of our national titles, The Guardian, The Observer and Guardian Unlimited [the Guardian's heavily used web site]. All other activities are in pursuit of that core objective and exist as a store of value to enable us to pursue our primary objective."
It's important to remember that, like the few American newspapers owned by nonprofit organizations, the Trust was founded as the result of an extraordinary act of generosity and public-spiritedness by a member of the owning family. Such acts, unfortunately, are likely to remain rare, and thus the ownership structure of the Guardian, like that of the St. Petersburg Times, (which is owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute), is unlikely to be widely emulated.
In this country, at least, the journalism of ideas is a nonprofit preserve of longstanding, even if such periodicals aren't officially nonprofit charitable organizations under IRS rules. One that meets those requirements is Harpers, originally a business and now put out by the Harper's Magazine Foundation. Other such publications limp along trying to finish in the black but subsidized by committed individual donors. Most of these magazines are small, but they have an outsized impact on public opinion because of their influential readers, who include many journalists and academics.
CommonWealth magazine, for example, is quarterly publication of the nonpartisan Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassINC) and examines Bay State issues in depth. In 2002 it reported on relatively youthful state employees who manage to get themselves "fired" soon after they become eligible for pensions. "A review of pension records by CommonWealth reveals that more than 1,000 state employees have seized on a variety of special early-retirement provisions since 1990, with hundreds of them obtaining pensions for which they may not have been qualified," the article said, singling out some big name Massachusetts politicos in the process.
CommonWealth is sent to roughly 1,000 MassINC dues-paying members as well as 9,000 journalists, academics, public officials, business executives and other opinion leaders, many of whom it also brings together in public forums with politicians and other powerful Massachusetts figures. It's thus able to affect public opinion despite a small circulation and a budget of just $750,000 a year--and a business model based on seriousness rather than celebrity appeal. The trick is support from roughly 90 disparate sponsoring organizations, including banks, labor unions and law firms. For their money, says editor Robert Keough, they get to advertise in a respected medium targeted at some of the state's most important people. But because there are so many such sponsors in such a broad range of fields distributed so widely across the political spectrum, the magazine hasn't had to worry if one or two get mad about an article it publishes. Says Keough: "Being a nonprofit with a commitment to the improvement of civic life frees us from the lowest-common-denominator mentality that dominates commercial journalism today."
Nonprofit status has proved especially suitable for the journalism of advocacy. It's noteworthy that Princeton's Paul Starr, who knows as well as anyone the role profits have historically played in building strong news organizations, is a founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, a nonprofit liberal journal of ideas. Since its founding as a quarterly in 1990, it has grown into a monthly with a paid circulation of 55,000 as well as what it calls "a daily web magazine [www.prospect.org] with more than 300,000 monthly visitors." The American Prospect was founded partly to counteract the intellectual dominance of conservative think tanks in Washington--which are themselves underwriting nonprofit journalism in the form of reports and newspaper op-ed articles by resident scholars and others. In fact, American newspapers took on their current nonpartisan, objective garb only when mass circulation became a profitable business goal, making it more lucrative to leave behind party affiliations and trade partisanship for appeal to a broad base of readers. To this day, despite critics on the left and the right, most for-profit news organizations insist that their journalism embodies fairness and objectivity.
The poster child for the role not-for-profits can play in doing serious journalism is National Public Radio, a nonprofit since its founding in 1970 that has become the preeminent cultural and journalistic force in the lives of a large number of mostly well-educated Americans. NPR's remarkable growth is a testament both to the journalistic potential of nonprofits as well as the failings of the marketplace. NPR distributes more than 120 hours of original programming each week to independent radio stations across the country; its programming is also available on satellite radio, and NPR's Morning Edition is probably the nation's leading morning radio show--proving that lots of people want real journalism, especially if it's free.
While for-profit radio stations still deliver headlines, traffic and weather reports, NPR offers more breadth and greater depth--something it did not always have the resources to accomplish. Back in 1979, it had a single foreign correspondent, Robert Siegel. It now has 36 bureaus worldwide, and its coverage of both the September 11th terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, which recognizes excellence in journalism. (Since 9/11, NPR has established a system for breaking into the local broadcast time at many of its member stations, which wasn't possible before.) Three years ago, NPR opened a major production center in Culver City, California, near Los Angeles, and has also launched a training program for radio journalists to cultivate new talent.
The lack of investigative reporting is a longstanding criticism of NPR, and partly to address this, the organization hired former investigative journalist and Baltimore Sun editor William K. Marimow as one of its top editors. NPR president Kevin Klose insists NPR is doing investigative journalism and cited a report on the very day of our interview by national reporter Snigdha Prakash, who has dug into Merck's handling of its Vioxx painkilling medication, which has been linked to cardiovascular problems.
The size and demographics of NPR's audience suggest a major market malfunction. For example, 75 percent of its news listeners have household income of $50,000 or more, and NPR listeners in general are fifty-eight percent college educated. NPR listeners also are more likely to own a computer and to have voted in an election than Americans in general. These are presumably the kind of listeners prized by advertisers. So why hasn't the marketplace offered similar fare? It's as if the automakers never thought to manufacture Volvos.
Klose insists that the key to NPR's success is precisely that it is not commercial, and instead pursues a mission "to be of assistance to listeners in the act of citizenship." He adds: "The purpose of what we do is not creating an encounter in which we can sell them anything." McChesney argues that NPR's success stems in large part from commercial radio's abandonment of its public interest obligation, which fell by the wayside in the 1980s, as well as from the ownership consolidation and general homogenization of commercial radio that commenced in earnest in the late 1990s. These changes left the door wide open to local public radio stations, he says, as well as the NPR programming they carry. (A lot of additional public radio programming, including some from the BBC, is provided by yet another thriving nonprofit, Public Radio International, which is supported by a number of foundations. And there is growing competition in this field from Public Radio International and American Public Media, among others.)
The door has never opened as wide to public television news in this country. For one thing, McChesney notes, radio news is relatively cheap to produce while television news is expensive, requiring more people and equipment. And then there is the matter of politics, which looms larger in the literally and figuratively more visible medium of TV. Insulating public broadcasting from political influence was emphasized by the original Carnegie Commission when it did its work, and has been a tenet of the system since it was launched. But not long after, public television came under pressure from the Nixon administration for its coverage of Vietnam and Watergate. Politics became an issue more recently when Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, then chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, accused the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) of failing to achieve balance in its programming.
Public television is hamstrung, moreover, by a lack of secure, reliable government funding, which in turn has increased its reliance on corporate support--and therefore the programming preferences of corporate funders. The system's complicated structure hasn't helped either. What Congress actually funds is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a nonprofit agency that exists to funnel federal money into public broadcasting--mostly to local stations. (The chairman of CPB is appointed by the White House.) PBS is a membership organization of 348 local TV stations, and doesn't itself produce programming. It distributes and promotes programming, though, and even provides some funding for programming, but actual programs are created by local stations such as WGBH in Boston, or by independent producers who must piece together backing from stations and corporate or philanthropic underwriters. This decentralized system may be characteristically American, but it's not designed to support a large newsgathering organization, even if it does result in such significant public affairs programming as Frontline, POV and NOW.
Yet public television's sole traditional news program--The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer--is also its crown jewel. NewsHour reaches 98 percent of U.S. television households and is seen in Asia, Europe, Japan and Latin America. Despite the system's limitations, NewsHour, which has an annual budget of $24 million, is watched by about 2.7 million people nightly and was ranked as the most credible, objective and influential TV news program in the country in the Erdos & Morgan Opinion Leader survey. Like everyone else, it has found its way onto the Internet, where its web site averages more than a million unique visitors each week.
The contrast between American public broadcasting and the British Broadcasting Corporation is stark. Federal funding for public broadcasting is $387 million in the current fiscal year, or about $3.50 per household--in a nation where the average annual cable bill in 2003 (the latest year available from the FCC) was $543.84. Now consider the situation across the pond. Funded by an annual television license fee of #126 (about $220) per household, the BBC is a massive multimedia operation that spent roughly #400 million (about $719 million) just on news in the most recent fiscal year it. It employs some 3,500 people in its worldwide news operations, including roughly 2,000 journalists. They staff 40 bureaus in every part of the globe, and the BBC is heard perhaps just as widely. Its World Service, which broadcasts in 40 languages, has an audience of 150 million people, the BBC says.
The British electorate supports its public broadcasting system despite the levy on televisions. A BBC survey last year found that eighty-one percent of respondents think "the Beeb" is worth the money--and many would pay more. Asked what they'd be willing to pay to keep the BBC from shutting down, the average answer was roughly double what they are paying now. For evidence as to why this might be, consider the BBC's coverage of the recent terrorist attacks on the London transit system. Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik noted that CNN's coverage "featured a red logo emblazoned with the words: "LONDON TERROR," and he quoted a CNN anchorwoman saying, "An eyewitness described utter pandemonium--bodies strewn around. ... People were screaming. ... They felt they were trapped like sardines essentially waiting to die." By contrast, Zurawik wrote, the BBC "provided a sense of stability even as the death toll climbed," offering an "oasis of relative calm" marked by "images of emergency workers restoring order." It should be noted, however, that there may be some problems ahead for this venerable broadcasting service. In the spring of 2005, the BBC announced plans to cut about 4,000 jobs from a workforce of about 21,000 to save some #355 million (about $670 million)--approximately 10 percent of its annual expenditure--over the next three years. Commenting on these proposed cost-saving measures, BBC director Mark Thompson said that the television license fee will only survive as the main method of funding the BBC "if the public is convinced that the corporation is spending money wisely."
In all likelihood, NPR is as close as we'll come to a domestic version of the BBC--and government funding will be a relatively small part of the picture. In fact, NPR only gets about one percent of its budget directly from Uncle Sam, although local public radio stations, which get about thirteen percent of their funds from Washington, use some of this money to pay NPR for programming. But while public radio in this country gets by on relatively little government money, it benefits from having a diversified funding base. Local public radio stations get about a third of their money from listener contributions and another quarter from corporate and foundation grants.
NPR has even established a foundation to raise an endowment for itself (PBS has more recently done likewise), and over the years has garnered funds from the Ford, Ahmanson and MacArthur foundations, among other sources. In 2003, it announced what has amounted to a $230 million gift from the estate of Joan B. Kroc, the San Diego philanthropist and widow of McDonald's tycoon Ray Kroc. The Kroc gift has enabled NPR to hire more journalists and expand its news coverage, which now involves 350 full and part-time employees and an annual news budget of $50 million. Local public radio stations provide news and public affairs programming of their own as well. NPR's Klose notes the contrast to for-profit radio: "Radio is completely finished as a reporting medium on the commercial side."
Unfortunately, the news about commercial news coverage generally is not good. The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), in its 2004 survey of the industry, "found that most sectors of the news media have seen clear cutbacks in newsgathering resources," according to Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell of the PEJ and Bill Kovach of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. The number of newspaper newsroom staffers shrunk by 2,000 between 2000 and 2004, a drop of 4 percent overall. Some major online news sites saw much deeper cuts, such as MSNBC, which cut around a quarter of its staff between 2001 and 2003. Radio newsroom staffing declined by 57 percent from 1994 to 2001. After an uptick in 1999, network staffing began to drop again in 2000. Since 1985 the number of network news correspondents has declined by 35 percent while the number of stories per reporter increased by 30 percent.
That same year, 2004, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in conjunction with PEJ, conducted a survey of 547 national and local journalists. Some 66 percent of national journalists said profit pressures were hurting journalistic quality (and, to point out that this is not just the usual newsroom grousing, only 41 percent held this view in 1995). Among local journalists, the figure had risen to 57 percent from 33 percent in the same period. Dan Gillmor, a former columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and lately an advocate of citizens' or grassroots journalism, may have summed up the worries when he said in an interview: "It's not at all clear, given the erosion of the business model the mass media are now suffering, that they will be able to afford--or their shareholders will permit--the kind of things I consider crucial in a democratic society."
The trends in newspapers are particularly worrisome. Newspapers are the journalistic institutions providing the most extensive coverage, from small town papers right up through USA Today. They are the news organizations with the most boots on the ground. Their articles are longer, deeper and more extensively sourced than those of other media, and mostly self-generated. Paul Ginocchio, who analyzes media stocks at Deutsche Bank Securities, states flatly that: "Newspapers are the prime content providers for the modern news distribution machine."
The newspaper industry remains quite profitable, but critics like Philip Meyer say this comes at the expense of spending on news. And the future doesn't look bright. Daily circulation, at about 55 million, has been stagnant for half a century--and "penetration" has been falling since the mid-1950s, at least. Back then, the industry sold 1.2 newspapers per household. Daily newspaper penetration today is hugely diminished, at roughly .5 newspapers per household. Worse yet, circulation has been falling in absolute terms since the mid-1980s. "I don't see any reasonable expectation this is going to change anytime soon," says John Morton, a veteran industry analyst. Newspaper advertising, meanwhile, the industry's lifeblood, is under attack. Such Internet ventures as craigslist.org and monster.com are aggressively competing for the industry's prized classified ad business. And Wal-Mart, the nation's most successful retailer, has preferred to advertise by direct mail.
As newspapers lose readers, celebrity-oriented periodicals are experiencing surging subscriptions and newsstand sales as well as big increases in advertising pages. They are also attracting a wider variety of ads, suggesting more mainstream acceptance. Meanwhile, says Steven Lagerfeld, editor of The Wilson Quarterly, which is published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, ideas-oriented publications such as his are battling for attention from the same relatively small group of potential readers. "There's no demand for quality," laments John R. MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper's.
But the appetite for escapism and schlock doesn't prove people don't want--or can't use--good journalism. "There is no shortage of historical studies showing a correlation between quality journalism and business success," writes Meyer, whose own work suggests that newspaper credibility is correlated with higher ad rates, and that higher staffing levels are linked to a slower decline in penetration. Paul Ginocchio, meanwhile, looked at 150 large newspaper markets and found, in the words of the Project for Excellence in Journalism 2005 report, The State of the News Media, "that papers recognized for superior news performance, like The Washington Post, the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had superior 'brand power'--defined as circulation numbers and ad rates above expectations for their markets." In other words, for newspapers, quality pays.
One area where news is clearly growing is the Internet, which has opened the door to a slew of other nonprofit media ventures that didn't exist before. New York's Gotham Gazette (gothamgazette.com) was started in 1999 with a grant from the Charles Revson Foundation and receives funding from the Rockefeller and New York Times foundations, among others. Besides offering a handy daily digest of New York City news stories appearing in other outlets, Gotham Gazette generates coverage of its own and publishes a policy magazine. It even posts translated articles from some of the city's foreign-language ethnic periodicals, and offers readers a database of articles relating to local political campaigns. Gotham Gazette is operated by the Citizens Union Foundation of the City of New York, a nonprofit research and education organization that sees itself as a watchdog of the public good. Gotham Gazette's annual budget is just $550,000 a year.
How does such an operation keep itself going financially? Gotham Gazette editor Jonathan Mandell says that the organization, which initially focused on establishing itself and building up its coverage, is now focusing more on sustainability as well, and that means finding new sources of revenue. Twice last year, for example, it ran appeals asking readers for money, garnering a total of $30,000, and Mandell says appeals this year will probably raise more. Gotham Gazette has also started offering classified and display ads, and is considering selling sponsorships for its popular e-mail newsletters, which offer potential advertisers the advantage of a highly targeted readership with a manifest interest in the topic at hand. "The Internet part of us in some ways is far more important than the nonprofit part of us," Mandell observes, noting that many news sites on the web aren't making a profit even if they wish they were.
Organizations such as Carnegie Corporation, the Reuters Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, meanwhile, have been funding a variety of media undertakings, from providing information that journalists can use to underwriting actual coverage. The Reuters Foundation, for example, has supported Voices of Iraq (http://www.aswataliraq.info/), a grassroots Iraqi news site that, with the help of $800,000 from the United Nations, plans to become an independent commercial news service. In this country, Carnegie Corporation is among the funders of the Center for Public Integrity, which conducts investigative reporting through a global network of journalists. Last year the Center's inquiry into U.S. government contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan won the online version of the George Polk Award, an important journalistic honor. The Center posts the fruits of its labor at http://www.publicintegrity.org.
Or consider the list of recipients awarded $12,000 each by the University of Maryland's J-Lab: the Institute for Interactive Journalism, which is using a $1 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to pay for its New Voices project. One was the Friends of the Deerfield (New Hampshire) Library to start a web site with local news, opinion and photography. Another was the Mid-Columbia Centro Cultural in Hood River, Oregon to launch a weekly half-hour, bilingual news program on a low-power FM radio station, with training for community members to write scripts and edit audio. Yet another is a community news weblog in a poor, largely African American neighborhood of Chicago. One of the goals, says J-Lab executive director Jan Schaffer, is for the New Voices grant recipients "to develop various models of sustainability--from corporate sponsorships, to foundations, to advertising, to subscriptions, etc."
"I doubt," she adds, in a comment that might apply across the nonprofit media landscape, "that there will be one size that fits all."
Daniel Akst is a writer in New York's Hudson Valley.