New study critiques business model of nonprofit news

by Laura Hazard Owen
Oct 30, 2018 in Media Sustainability

In a new research paper, New York University professor Rodney Benson looks at the role of nonprofits and foundation-supported news organizations in the U.S. today, exploring the benefits and shortcomings of the model.

Below are excerpts of Benson’s conversation with Nieman Lab deputy editor Laura Hazard Owen, on why the reliance on foundations to support nonprofit journalism organizations could have potential drawbacks.

Rodney Benson: I think what a lot of foundation-supported media are doing is providing quality news to audiences that are already getting a lot of quality news. That’s not a bad thing, but I don’t think they’re addressing the problem of the broader lack of public knowledge in the larger citizenry.

The foundations are asking nonprofit media to be [financially] sustainable and to have impact. Those two things don’t go together easily. How do you have impact? Often, these organizations create partnerships with commercial media. Usually they just give [their content] away because the commercial media won’t pay for it. That allows them to reach a larger audience, but it also ties them into the larger commercial media system because they have to produce content that the commercial media are going to be comfortable with. [...]

The other sources of income are paying audiences, subscriptions, corporate sponsorships, and advertising. Then they’re really targeting what they publish to this high-income, high-education audience, which makes them virtually indistinguishable from niche commercial media. I feel the potential for nonprofits to offer a radical alternative to commercial media is being lost.

Laura Hazard Owen: Do you have any examples of a nonprofit that you think is doing a really good job at providing the radical alternative?

Benson: One good example I often give is San Francisco Public Press, which launched with the motto that it wanted to be the “Wall Street Journal for working people.” It’s really bent on providing quality in-depth investigative reporting but also figuring out a way to distribute that to low-income neighborhoods and reach beyond the usual suspects. One of the ways they try to reach a broader audience is by continuing to print a newspaper, since a lot of the poor and working poor don’t have regular online access.

Owen: How do you think we can improve the system?

Benson: One of the problems that I identify is the way that foundations are moving increasingly toward project-based funding over long-term organizational funding. If the foundation world itself could acknowledge the importance of long-term organizational funding, that would be, I think, progress.

Another idea is broader, small donor networks to support media. If there’s a way to harness some of the energy that’s gone into supporting political campaigns, could that be harnessed on behalf of nonprofit media that would be reaching a very broad audience?

A lot of people who work in foundations are very conscientious, but they have tremendous power and there’s very little oversight of that. There’s very little reporting on the philanthropic world; there’s not much of a philanthropy beat at most organizations anymore. Yet this sector is growing; its power and scope are growing. We treat it as if it’s this unalloyed kind of good, but it’s more complex than that.

This post is an abridged version of a post that originally appeared on Nieman Lab and is republished with permission.

Main image is CC-licensed by Kurtis Garbutt via Flickr