article

02.17.09

Should the News Go Nonprofit?

Access to a functional press is a basic right, so if news organizations are going to fail as business models, someone needs to pick up the slack—possibly you.

It didn’t start out this way, but the newspaper survival crisis has taken on some of the trappings of the broader financial calamity in the country. Last week there was a Time cover story, a New York Times online roundtable of experts, a Charlie Rose panel, and a torrent of punditry elsewhere on what must be done. All of those opinions being amassed in search of solutions recall the notion that, with so much debris, “there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

The odds are that, in the future, more news will be supported in nonprofit settings, as are universities and museums, two other core aspects of our fabric of knowledge and progress.

Arguments about the future of news, like those over the country’s broader economic troubles, tend to proceed along two tracks that are parallel but intersect in crucial respects. The first track is ideological, in many ways comparable to the controversy about the role of government surrounding the stimulus package. The second track, similar to the arcane details of the “bailout” for the banking sector, is what to do about the demonstrably broken business model of metropolitan newspapers and news magazines.

Track One. What exactly does society need and expect from the newsgathering process? A functioning press is a constitutionally protected right. Yet, for the most part, news is supposed to be a business, dependent on securing advertisers and attracting subscribers. So if news can no longer be sustained by commerce, what happens to this fundamental pillar of democracy? That is the basis for serious discussion about re-imagining news models to make public support and nonprofit status a fail-safe, assuring that journalism—the lens through which society monitors government, industry, and foreign affairs—will be sustained even if, as a profiting-making enterprises, the system has failed.

One of the mistaken (or simplistic) beliefs is that all news organizations are now losing money, and because of the decline of newspapers and news magazines, news will soon not be collected. Actually, there are a group of highly professional and very large organizations that provide broad-gauged and systematic coverage of many matters. The Associated Press (a cooperative owned by news businesses) is a vast national and international service. Thomson-Reuters, Bloomberg, and Dow Jones news wires have a heavy slant toward business, but have thousands of reporters deployed around the country and the world, tracking events. The AP has many features that could be adopted by other news organizations, including licensing the use of its information instead of giving it away. The cable-television news networks, while subject to the advertising downturn in the economy, are still providing ample cash because of a structure that extracts fees from everyone on a cable system, whether they watch the channel or not.

And then, there are the nonprofit news models, such as National Public Radio, PBS, and C-SPAN, which now have 30 years of experience navigating the demands for securing resources outside the market and without the obligations of public companies. (But let’s be clear, they face plenty of challenges also.) So on this track of debate, the issue is whether the government, the philanthropic sector, or anyone else has a fundamental obligation to save the major metropolitan dailies from Seattle to Miami, from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, that are in dire straits. “Who owns the news?” is a question posed whenever the perils of corporate dominance are being probed. If top-quality news at every level, from micro-local to global, is a democratic imperative, then greater emphasis needs to be placed in all the current confabs on how society can step in when the marketplace fails.

There are certain things that are essential to national well-being—education, infrastructure, health care—and news is one of them. The odds are that, in the future, more news will be supported in nonprofit settings, as are universities and museums, two other core aspects of our fabric of knowledge and progress. As any university president or museum director will tell you, that structure is not nirvana, but it does work.

Track Two. The country’s banks made catastrophic blunders in valuing assets at what turned out to be many times their real worth. The equivalent mistake among newspapers was to start giving away information in the misbegotten belief that mass distribution would attract lucrative advertising. This was the network-television model that prevailed from the 1940s to the 1980s, when cable came along and we all started paying providers for what in the past we got for free. A very profitable category of Internet-based companies has benefited enormously from newspapers’ profound systematic error. These companies (collectively, let’s call them Google) sell ads around the information they get gratis, and keep most of the revenue. In another variation of this model, the slots on news websites that are not sold by the sites themselves (traditionally known as remainder space) are made available to aggregators that accumulate eyeballs across many venues and sell advertising in bulk, offering a pittance share to the originating news gatherers.

What the news business has to recognize is that the concept of giving news away is not any more viable than selling mortgages to people who can’t afford them. The proverbial bottom line is that someone has to pay for news: either readers through subscription, advertising aggregators, or broadband suppliers that deliver content. The country is ready to bail out its banking system at the cost of trillions of dollars. It is beyond far-fetched to think that a taxpayer bailout of the news business for a demonstrably wrong-headed business practice is possible. In the absence of that, the news organizations, people profiting from selling advertising around news, and the public at large need to be persuaded that content is a commodity and therefore has to come at a price. So those are the ideological and financial issues at stake. The nation’s founders recognized that the press and free speech are essential in a democratic society. Given that requirement, our common goal has to be finding the means, one way or another, to assure that news, of quality and breadth, is available to all.

Peter Osnos is a senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation, where he writes the weekly Platform column. Osnos is the founder and editor-at-large of PublicAffairs Books. He is vice chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, a former publisher at Random House and was a correspondent and editor at The Washington Post. Visit TCF.org for a full archive of Platform columns.