National Public…Newspapers?


My favorite editor and I had our semi-bimonthly-whenever-we-have-a-chance breakfast meeting this morning, and inevitably the conversation turned to the state (fate?) of newspapers and print media in general. He had been asked to talk to a journalism class at the local college and, considering that he just came off a month of layoffs and pay cuts, it apparently wasn’t exactly the most inspiring presentation to make in front of people who hope to have his job (or something like it) someday.

We got to thinking, though, about what kind of newfangled business model newspapers and magazines can adopt in the future that will ensure their survival. The New York Times published an op-ed piece in January from David Swensen and Michael Schmidt advocating the transformation of newspapers from for-profit enterprises dependent on advertising to nonprofit, endowed institutions “like colleges and universities.” An online commentator has already derided that proposal, but I can see the merit in it. One of Jonathan Weber’s complaints is that endowed institutions would be beholden to the tastes and opinions of a small group of people, i.e., the donors. That would indeed be a problem if the organization were only endowed by a small group of people, but most endowed institutions receive funding from an enormous pool. The bigger the institution, the better.

People who’ve never worked for a nonprofit often mistakenly assume that the agency’s funding comes primarily from grants large and small. That may be the case for very small, single-person start-ups, but in order for most nonprofits to survive the long-term, they must obtain on-going funding from non-institutional donors. That’s why an Annual Giving or Annual Fund program is so critical to any institution — college, university, the Red Cross, or the local homeless shelter. Most grants eventually end, and most are restricted in their requirements, i.e., they can’t be used for general operating expenses but must instead be used for specific programs. Indeed, many foundations specifically state in their guidelines that funds cannot be used towards endowments. Also most institutional donors require that the recipient organization have a way to fund their operations long after the grant monies expire. That’s where the Annual Giving campaigns come in.

Would such a model work for newspapers? I got to thinking about National Public Radio. I used to work for the NPR/PBS affiliate in Dallas — I’ve been a huge fan of public radio since at least my college years and loved my time at the station. NPR or even PBS fans will be familiar with the public broadcasting model; anyone who’s ever listened to the membership drive spiel knows how it all works. Most of the funding for NPR and its affiliates come from its membership, and several times a year the stations all hold on-air fundraising drives to solicit donations and new members. They get some limited revenue from ancillary ventures — e.g., a local station produces a documentary about, say, global warming, the broadcasting license for which is purchased for a fee by other stations interested in airing it — but the majority of a station’s funding comes from Listeners Like You.

Would such a model work for newspapers? Radio has a more intimate relationship with its audience, of course, with its announcers and deejays. I know that I felt as if I had known KERA’s Sam Baker forever, long before I actually met him in person and became his colleague, simply because I woke up to his voice on my radio every single morning. The Dallas folks are especially good at working the mic, as they somehow manage to make even the pledge drives fun to listen to. (Now that’s a personality.)

But would it work for newspapers? Can, say, a public media organization operate on a membership basis much like NPR and PBS, with members pledging to support the paper’s operations via monthly or annual monetary gifts? The business department would no longer employ advertising reps but rather professional fundraisers (which is what I did at KERA) who go out into the community and solicit donations from individuals, or who work the phones and computers like they do during public radio/TV drives and request donations telephonically and electronically. And reporters and editors can do their jobs as they always have done, “without fear or favor.”

[The “media” and public perception is that public broadcasting is a bastion of liberal reporting and commentary, but what we found when I was at KERA was that we had an almost equal number of people calling and writing to us complaining that we were giving too much airtime to conservative, right-wing commentators and reporting. That demonstrated to us that we were doing our jobs, providing balanced, thoughtful journalism. Our varied listener/viewer audience would not have allowed us to lean in one direction or another simply to satisfy the political sensibilities of one person or group. Indeed, the fundraising side of the building interacted very little with the reporting side (much to my disappointment, because you know that I would have much rather worked on the reporting side, but I digress). It’s the same situation with newspapers — the business side ostensibly is entirely separate from the content/editorial side. To be otherwise would be to invite justified accusations of perceived bias in reporting because of advertiser influence. At KERA we fundraisers took comments and complaints from our donors — from the $35/year donor to the $10,000/year donor — and duly passed them on to the content folks when necessary, but only for informational, FYI purposes, never to influence their coverage.]

I could see a situation where newspapers might try that type of model (among many, I’m sure, and some that we have yet to imagine). The traditional model that has worked for years is obviously dying, so it would behoove all of us who work in journalism to overcome our inertia and timidity in trying out new technologies and systems and pursue new ideas and strategies. The nonprofit, public-broadcasting model may end up being completely inappropriate for newspapers (pledge drives via print may not be nearly as compelling as they are on TV and on the radio, for example), but like the ailing healthcare system, it’s either sink or swim. We try different things and see if they work rather than sticking stubbornly to a template that’s clearly no longer viable. Eventually — maybe — we’ll find the answer.