Kennedy’s conclusion: “[E]ntrepreneurs can launch lively local websites and make enough money to keep them going. What they lack is a business model robust enough to fund the sort of in-depth reporting that we associate with newspapers”—something he argues that the large nonprofits can, in fact, do.

Kennedy should be commended for his honest analysis of the challenges faced by many small for-profit startups, and his acknowledgment of the importance of the work they produce in the face of these challenges. But his conclusion that large nonprofits are in the best position to fill the gaps left by newspapers is a bit too rosy, or at least incomplete. Kennedy does note that while large nonprofits have proven that they can match (and even exceed) newspapers in quality, they have yet to match newspapers and their larger staffs in terms of the volume of coverage they produce.

But a significant oversight is his failure to mention the well-funded for-profits that don’t fit into his “nonprofits=big, for-profits=small” taxonomy. As Kennedy rightly points out, many of the benefits of large nonprofits come from their ability to fund in-depth reporting. And yet I know of at least two significant startups that are able to fund that kind of journalism with a for-profit model. Both This Land Press in Tulsa, OK, and Alaska Dispatch, in Anchorage, were “born big” but owe their genesis to private investment rather than foundation grants. Both produce excellent journalism, and both have made significant gains in earning revenue beyond their investment capital.

This isn’t to say that these startups are necessarily better positioned for long-term survival than Kennedy’s nonprofits, only that for-profit startups have proven capable of bringing in money and wielding the resulting journalistic firepower—and the industry is better for it. I’ve often wondered why more wealthy individuals haven’t helped journalists launch large, ambitious organizations devoted to for-profit accountability journalism, particularly since major foundations aren’t giving many people a chance to do that these days.

Ultimately, though, The Wired City transcends the exhausting debate over what journalism startups should look like. It gets at a more fundamental point: that news startups, both for-profit and nonprofit, matter. Their coverage is taking hold in their communities. They’re worthy of funding from foundations and private investors alike. And they’re worthy of serious, long-term study.

 

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Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer.