The bigger the handout, the more onerous the conditions. Laura Frank, director of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, last September told the American Journalism Review: “People think, ‘Oh, wow. You don’t have to deal with advertisers,’ but it’s kind of the same thing. Foundations are used to funding something and having control over it. You have to explain to them that there is a firewall: ‘What you’re funding is the act of journalism for the benefit of society.’ ”

There is, of course, a great debate over whether the kind of standardized objective journalism that took hold with the professionalization of the craft in the latter half of the last century still serves the public. A press that advocates positions on issues is not inherently problematic. The question is whether the advocacy is pursued independently of funding interests; that’s the distinction that Frank finds she must constantly strive to make her funders understand.

Advocacy as an editorial priority or point of view is essential to a healthy, diverse press culture. Without it, there’s no Nation, no Weekly Standard, no New Criterion, no Dissent, to name a few outlets with radically different structures but with independent editorial missions.

Advocacy as a funding mechanism is what I find problematic, especially as new big-money power bases emerge for solving the problems that society encounters. Everyone takes for granted the need to be a news organization that is independent of Washington. But how long before it becomes just as important to be independent of, say, tech billionaires out of Cupertino, or Mountain View, or Redmond?

Building a “philanthropy firewall” is just as daunting as any advertising firewall ever was. Yet contemplating a nonprofit model does not necessarily mean hunting great personal or corporate fortunes. Broad appeals to the middle class have long been a part of American philanthropic practice.

But broad appeals need a broad base, and, therefore, scale. Most journalism will not be able to reach that scale quickly, without large private disbursements from a small number of deep pockets. The next NPR or PBS will not just drop out of the sky without some boldface name from the financial pages creating it. That strikes me as perilous.


Building a business, as risky as it sounds, at least builds value that belongs to the organization. It can be difficult, and slow. Today’s apparent success stories are often small regional startups that have generally been patient about scaling up. Such sites may not comfort those who want to see three or four more news organizations with the strength and reach of now-fading quality regional dailies, like The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, or the Chicago Tribune. But it’s worth remembering that these papers, in a different era, themselves grew organically over time from local dailies to large operations, according to market conditions.

In other words, I tend to think the tortoise in this race is journalism produced by individuals willing to endure extremely small budgets to build an audience and revenue streams over time, independent of agenda-driven charitable organizations and deep-pocketed vanity publishers. Some well-endowed nonprofits see things differently; there admittedly is a divide among nonprofit journalism organizations about scale.

But the nonprofit journalism outfits that spend big bucks can’t go on forever, can they? I don’t think the large nonprofit journalism entities coming into being these days are the future, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

In his conclusion, Zunz elevates the importance not of big donors, but of many small ones. “If there is a lesson from the history I have told,” Zunz concludes, “it is that philanthropy enlarges democracy when it is an activity in which the many participate.”

The same, I think, will be true of the journalism, whether for-profit or nonprofit, that emerges in the next half century. Lean operations of committed journalists, fiercely protective of their independence and eager for commercial success—but flexible in their planning and patient for growth—will create the next generation of quality journalism. You haven’t heard of very many of them yet, but you will. 

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

 

Tom McGeveran is a co-founder and editor of Capital New York, a for-profit news and commentary site that recently raised $1.7 million from private investors. He previously was editor of The New York Observer.