Well Endowed

Would philanthropic endowments save newspapers—or destroy them?

Last week, a New York Times op-ed proposed a novel way to save newspapers: “Turn them into nonprofit, endowed institutions — like colleges and universities.” Claiming that endowments would “enhance newspapers’ autonomy while shielding them from the economic forces that are now tearing them down,” Yale professors David Swensen and Michael Schmidt wrote:

By endowing our most valued sources of news we would free them from the strictures of an obsolete business model and offer them a permanent place in society, like that of America’s colleges and universities. Endowments would transform newspapers into unshakable fixtures of American life, with greater stability and enhanced independence that would allow them to serve the public good more effectively.

The New Yorker’s Steve Coll liked the idea:

How did we end up in a society where Williams College has (or had, before September) an endowment well in excess of one billion dollars, while the Washington Post, a fountainhead of Watergate and so much other skeptical and investigative reporting critical to the republic’s health, is in jeopardy?

But others worried that endowments would both compromise newspapers’ neutrality and keep them from having to adapt to the changing news environment. Former McClatchy exec Howard Weaver said the endowment enthusiasts “have the musty smell of the mausoleum all about them,” while Jack Shafer warned against “stroking philanthropic billionaires or foundations in what my colleague Adrian Monck calls the ‘holy search for “enlightened” money.’”

But. There has never been a system of financial support for journalism that didn’t involve tradeoffs. And “enlightened money” is still money, which is in short supply at newspapers these days. Let’s say a billionaire of moderate political leanings establishes a fund to endow the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. What would the consequences be, both good and bad?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.