Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

21 April, 2009

Share It Fairly But Don't Take a Slice of My Pie

A few weeks ago, Jesse Russell of Dane101 pleaded with the Wisconsin State Journal, "Please don't charge me". It was a response to a blog post written by our honorable mayor in which he asked the WSJ and The Capital Times to charge for reading the news online rather than having the papers go away and/or to have the increasingly incestuous relationship between the WSJ and TCT be split asunder. Mayor Dave made his modest proposal:

Charge me. Please charge me. Why is it that I should expect to pay for news delivered on paper, but not expect to pay for the same story I read online? It costs something to hire reporters and editors and why shouldn't I, as a consumer of the news, pay for some of that cost?

Contrariwise, Russell believes that "information should be free". He recognizes that reporting the news is a costly venture but feels that average readers should not have to help shoulder the burden. Instead, he prefers that news organizations take a particular non-profit route.

One model is currently being floated by Maryland Senator Bejamin [sic] Cardin. Under his Newspaper Revitalization Act, newspapers could reorganize as nonprofits and be considered under a status typically reserved for educational entities. Advertising and circulation revenue would be tax exempt under his proposal and, while the paper could still cover politics, they would be barred from making political endorsements (worth noting even though I'm pretty sure the opinion is wrong, The Daily Finance argues that the status would actually bar newspapers from covering politics. The reason I think The Daily Finance is wrong is because The New Haven Independent is a non-profit news site and they haven't had any problems covering politics since they launched in 2005).

So what about The New Haven Independent and other non-profit news sites? Do we have an example of one that doesn't ask anything of its readers?

Now, I personally don't have a list of all the non-profit news organizations and they come in various shapes & sizes but I did find some info on a couple that is instructive. Let's start with The New Haven Independent and a piece written by its founder, Paul Bass. He writes a lot about leaving corporate media but he notes how he went about funding his venture:

I pursued a similar model: a not-for-profit built on three revenue streams, as with “All Things Considered.” One: grants from foundations to support specific kinds of reporting. Two: general sponsorships from charitable groups. Three: Voluntary donations from readers who give permission for us to deduct $10 or $18 monthly from their credit cards.

Similarly, Joel Kramer, the founder of another non-profit news agency, MinnPost, also talks about the pecuniary role of readers in a piece he wrote for Nieman Journalism Lab.

Like almost all news on the web, MinnPost content is free to all, but we do ask our readers to become members, which entails making an annual donation. This is a variation on the model that public radio and public television use, but minus the intrusive pledge weeks.

MinnPost has had early support from major donors and foundations, and we believe that serious journalism is a community asset, not just a consumer good, which is why we’re nonprofit. But we are focused on breaking even by 2011, or at the latest 2012, without relying on foundation support to keep the lights on.

Why? Because (a) we think it’s possible to reach break-even; and (b) we think it’s desirable, since foundations already have so many causes to support, and it’s questionable whether they have the capacity to support journalism on the expansive scale that may be needed to replace what’s being lost, especially regionally, in the for-profit industry.

Kramer differentiates his non-profit organization from another, ProRepublica:

This is different from a pure philanthropic endeavor, like ProPublica, which (at least in its current plan) depends for its success on the continuing generosity of foundations or very large individual donors.

Neither Bass nor Kramer do what Mayor Dave suggested Madison's papers do – charge readers to get at content. However, they refrain from assuming that readers have some utopian right to free news and actively court readers' money. There's no such thing as a free lunch is more than just a pithy aphorism – someone has to pay for the gathering & reporting of news. Non-profit status means not trying to make money for owners or stockholders; it does not mean giving away something for free.

Kramer gives us this thought:

With each new announcement of a paper closing, or a news company contemplating bankruptcy, or a dozen more journalism jobs being eliminated, my belief intensifies that the nonprofit approach has the best chance of sustaining serious regional journalism.

Donor's gave MinnPost $1.2 million at startup. That money has to come from somewhere and it seems both unreasonable and unfair for readers of news to just step aside and assume that others will do the dirty work. Foundations and charities only have so much money with a multitude of deserving causes around so it is unreasonable to assume that they'll be able to cover the costs for regional news sources around the country. Surely there will be individual donors like the members of MinnPost and it is unfair to let them pay while those who do not receive those same benefits.

Joel Kramer said above that serious journalism is a community asset. And isn't a free press how we voters get informed, i.e. – a vital part of self-governance? It's worth noting that both MinnPost and The New Haven Independent not only ask for readers to give money, but they probably couldn't do what they do without it.

So why all the hesitation at actually having to pay a little bit to get your news?
|| Palmer, 1:26 PM


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