But our democracy’s need for higher-quality reportage has substantially increased. It’s time for civil society, especially the nation’s foundations and individuals of means, to collaborate with journalists and experts who understand the changing economics of journalism in an imaginative, visionary plan that would support our precious existing nonprofit institutions and help to develop new ones—the Associated Presses and Morning Editions and Frontlines of the future, in all forms of media. As Bill Kovach, the chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, puts it, “I think we have to really count on philanthropic organizations, at least in an interim period while this destabilization continues. Because most news organizations are so scared and so unsure of themselves, they are not protecting their franchise. And somehow a philanthropy that believes in democracy has to help stabilize it.”
There are tantalizing signs that specific philanthropic institutions and individuals finally realize just how severe the crisis has become. The question is: Can they overcome their sometimes short-term thinking and fickle, often idiosyncratic nature and make significant, multi-year commitments to strengthen or build pillars of journalism in their communities, the nation, and beyond? Can they think outside their own agendas and embrace the inherent value of accurate, nonpartisan information to our national discourse?
The journalists are ready. More than at any time I can remember in the past thirty years, respected journalists in the U.S. and around the world, frustrated by what has become of their profession, appear to be increasingly interested in carpe diem entrepreneurship, in starting, leading, or working in new nonprofit newsrooms locally, nationally, and even internationally. And in recent months, major philanthropists and journalists, in different settings around the country, have been talking to each other about what is needed and what is possible.
Why not nonprofit online newspapers serving their communities—Orlando or Akron or San Francisco—supported by local citizens and area foundations, or perhaps in association with local colleges and universities? Or, beyond the local scale, if five million people regularly coalesce as subscribing members of a National Geographic Society, why can’t other serious journalistic entities draw such numbers in a digital world, across borders? And beyond daily news coverage, is there a way to regularly generate high-quality, investigative and international reporting as a syndication service or as a “viewers like you”-supported Web destination? Such things are absolutely possible, and absolutely sustainable, with the right combinations of people, resources, and timing—and they are certainly needed.
For America’s major foundations, this is another PBS/ NPR leadership moment, in which great vision and substantial resources together can accomplish something historic. At the very least, from NPR to the infinitely less-nurtured and younger investigative-reporting organizations profiled here, increased long-term support could boost both the quality and the quantity of their output and impact.
All of the above? That could measurably improve the woefully ailing “informed citizenry” dimension of our democracy.
And for serious reporters and editors looking for trustworthy places to work, these new and future nonprofit institutions could be ways to rejuvenate and sustain the soul of journalism.