One distinguished exception is Philip Meyer, the visionary computer-assisted-reporting pioneer, who has also studied the effects on the news of a tightening economic environment and been vocal for years about the need for new ideas and approaches. Meyer serves as the Knight Chair and Professor of Journalism at the University of North Carolina, where he is just starting his final year. In his 2004 book, The Vanishing Newspaper, Meyer wrote, “The only way to save journalism is to develop a new model that finds profit in truth, vigilance, and social responsibility.” He cited nonprofit institutions such as National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity, which I founded in 1989 and ran until 2004, as perhaps representing useful roadmaps for the future.
Nonprofit ownership and publishing are hardly a new ideas in the U.S. The oldest and largest news organization in the world, founded as a cooperative venture back in 1846, is a not-for-profit corporation based in New York—The Associated Press. The AP today has more than four thousand staff employees (three thousand of them journalists) worldwide, and 243 bureaus in ninety-seven countries. According to the 24/7 wire service, “on any given day, more than half the world’s population sees news from AP”—news sent in five languages via fifteen thousand outlets in 121 countries. In the U.S., its paying clients consist of five thousand radio and television outlets, four thousand Web-site customers, and 1,700 U.S. newspapers. And the AP, with revenue of $679.8 million last year, appears to have adapted well to the new technologies, forging lucrative relationships with such major online customers as Google and Yahoo and others; revenue from digital sources is 15 percent, or just over $100 million, and rising.
But also consider such nonprofit-owned newspapers as The Christian Science Monitor (published secularly since 1908 by the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, with writers based in eleven countries); the Manchester, New Hampshire, Union Leader (owned by the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications); The Day in New London, Connecticut (willed to a trust in 1939, with some revenue flowing to community organizations via grants); The Anniston Star in Alabama (to be willed to a trust upon the death of the publisher and his sister; some profits already finance a newsroom-based graduate program in journalism); and the Delaware State News (willed to a trust in 1991, with profits reinvested in the paper). And on the magazine side, such publications as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Mother Jones, and Harper’s are all nonprofits. The giant Consumer Reports, which has won numerous journalism awards over the years, is owned by Consumers Union, a nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1936. Other big special-interest magazines published by nonprofit organizations include AARP The Magazine (22.6 million subscribers) and National Geographic (5.4 million).
The nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Florida—named after Nelson Poynter, who owned the Times Publishing Company and created the institute and willed stock in order to maintain it after his death—owns the for-profit St. Petersburg Times newspaper and its affiliates, Congressional Quarterly, Governing, and Florida Trend magazines. On national television, two highly respected news programs, Frontline and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, are aired on the not-for-profit Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), launched in 1969.
But no nonprofit—and no for-profit—news media organization in the U. S. today can match the audience growth of National Public Radio (NPR), which began in 1970 and now has thirty-six bureaus in the U.S. and worldwide and approximately thirty million weekly listeners, double what it had a decade ago. NPR news reaches audiences around the world through broadcast, satellite, and digital radio, as well as through online, mobile, and on-demand services. Today NPR has seven hundred employees and its programming is heard on more than eight hundred independent public radio stations nationwide; its flagship programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, are the top and fourth most listened-to radio programs in America. Thanks in substantial part to a huge bequest by Joan Kroc, NPR’s operating budget is about $144 million today, with total assets exceeding $436 million. It is hard to believe that at the end of 1983, it had only about two million listeners and was $7 million in debt. In the late 1990s and again, especially after September 11, NPR turned some kind of significant corner, becoming a primary news source for millions of Americans.