Nonprofit status could work to save big-city newspapers

More than enough writers have killed more than enough trees in recent years trying to divine the future of the news business. It’s hardly a secret that journalism as we have come to know it, and newspaper journalism in particular, has had a rough few years.

In the past decade, newspaper readership among the Medicare crowd — those 65 and over — has dropped from 72 to 65 percent. That’s painful. That group is historically the most loyal cohort of newspaper readers. Couple that with an even more precipitous drop, from 42 to 31 percent among potential readers, those between the ages of 18 and 24, along with declines in advertising revenue, and the future looks grim indeed. All of that has resulted in a reporting staff in the United States that now numbers 40,000, down from 60,000 a decade ago.

That’s old news, though. And I don’t claim any particular insight into what might become of the business I devoted all those decades to. But there are some things I do hope happen, because I think they would be good for the business.

There has been a great deal of discussion in the trade press about the idea of a non-profit newspaper, one that would rely on a large endowment to fund news operations and traditional circulation and advertising revenue to fund the rest of the operations. I’ve read the arguments for and against a non-profit newspaper and think the idea may have merit. It certainly might be worth considering if, as it appears to be more and more likely, the traditional revenue streams that historically allowed newspaper publishers to fund large newsrooms with robust reporting staffs never again materialize.

It’s worth noting, especially in sparsely populated western Colorado, that the perils of newspapers are primarily confined to the large dailies. Small and medium-size operations like The Daily Sentinel are likely to continue to thrive for years, if not decades. So any discussion about fundamental change to the business is for the most part about big daily newspapers.

The key to the success of the newspaper as non-profit, of course, would be what has always been the key to the success of newspapers: The newsroom must be independent, not beholden to advertisers, political parties, or the power structure of the community it serves.

Historically, that has been accomplished by courageous publishers. Some publishers have been more courageous than others and some communities, thus, have been better served by their newspaper than others.

The beauty of a non-profit could be the guarantees of independence, and a guarantee of devoting a certain amount of a newspaper’s resources to its reporting and editing function could be spelled out in the mission of the non-profit.

It’s difficult to say if that would do anything to solve the (perceived, in my view, but real nonetheless) credibility problems that newspapers battle on a daily basis.

Today newspapers can say their newsrooms operate independently, and for the most part they do. But they are still for-profit entities and the only thing that determines the independence of the newsroom is the good word of the publisher.

It seems to me a non-profit could be structured in a manner that would eliminate any doubt about the role of the news operation. The downside (some will call it an upside) is the tax-exempt status that would make non-profit status work for newspapers would probably require the paper not endorse candidates for office and take positions on other political matters. At least that’s been the case in any proposed legislation to date to give newspapers non-profit status.

Political endorsements have long been one of those things newspapers have done. But it’s not a universal undertaking. There are newspapers that do not endorse candidates as a matter of policy, and others that sometimes endorse and sometimes don’t.

The heart and soul of a newspaper, though, is its reporting. I don’t want to continue to see the decline in reporting staffs we’ve seen for the past decade. If non-profit status is what it takes to avoid that, then I’m on board.

Denny Herzog is the retired executive editor of The Daily Sentinel. E-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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