Innovation, Not Alms Hold the Key to Journalism’s Future

Thanks to the Think Tank for the shout-out this morning. The occasion? This piece from Slate media writer Jack Shafer, who comes down against a foundation model for major news organizations like the New York Times.

Shafer’s piece comes on the heels of other op-eds (by people much smarter than me) who advocate a new nonprofit model for newspapers racked by falling advertising revenues and changing media habits. The idea is that a big benefactor (or several benefactors) establishes an endowment to fund a newsroom’s operations. This way, newsrooms can maintain their current size and not be subject to economic downturns.

Like Shafer, I’m not high on this idea. The nonprofit model does work for some organizations (Shafer names several), but as a fix-all for big journalism, it’s a wrong-headed approach, mainly because it encourages newspapers not to change. As Shafer puts it:

… many of our notions of what a quality newspaper ought to contain are based on memories of recent decades, when many newspapers were printing money and had no trouble saying yes to proposals for new foreign bureaus, new national bureaus, new suburban bureaus, and new sections.

There is something arbitrary about the endowment brigade’s wish to freeze newspaper newsroom size at its high watermark.

Think about this: If someone were to come along tomorrow and start a new newspaper-like news organization, it would probably look nothing like what an average major metropolitan daily looks like right now. It would be smaller in staff, with reporters doing much more than writing next-day stories; they’d be blogging, shooting video, taking photos, posting audio clips and monitoring community discussions. It would emphasize content delivery to the Web first, with its print edition smaller and probably more targeted. There would be heavily emphasized media partnerships with TV, radio, outside bloggers and probably commercial entities that might help the news organization provide readers certain services or information. And integrated advertising sales would be key, with online advertising valued properly.

Could such an animal be cultivated in a nonprofit or foundation-type setting? Maybe. But it sounds to me like a job for entrepreneurs with an eye toward innovation and a sustainable business model that scales online, in print, wherever. And we’re starting to see the seeds of such innovation in sites like Allbritton Communications’ Politico — lean operations that are big on the Web, publish in print, syndicate and promote content wisely and cultivate new audiences and revenue streams.

It’s such commercial innovation that holds the clues to journalism’s future — not alms for the press.


Brill: Charge for journalism

NYT’s Keller on whether newspapers should charge for content


One Response

  1. […] said before that it might take entrepreneurs and innovators to find the new model for how journalism will operate online. Today, Crain’s Chicago Business […]

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