Don’t celebrate the reinvention of news as a nonprofit model, writes Slate’s Jack Shafer. Although several prominent experiments in philanthropy-funded news have sprung up lately, Shafer says it’s a case of “substituting one flawed business model for another. For-profit newspapers lose money accidentally. Nonprofit news operations lose moneydeliberately,” he points out.
The problem is that deep-pocketed sugar daddies almost always have an agenda, and the news outlets they fund invariably become mouthpieces for their political goals. Think Sun Myung Moon and the Washington Times. “Having just evicted the usual gatekeepers, how many readers are going to be eager to have philanthropists reset the news agenda?” Shafer asks. What’s more, nonprofit ventures may compete with, and weaken, existing for-profit media organizations, which is a loser for everybody. Shafer correctly points out that the most prestigious news organizations in the world all have commercial motivations.
One of the nonprofits Shafer mentions is MinnPost and local media reporter David Brauerhas issues with Shafer’s comments. It’s true that philanthropist’s agenda does influence the staff who write the stories, he says, but can’t the same be said for advertisers’ influence on profit-making entities? MinnPost’s goal is to subsist on reader subscriptions and “I’d rather be subject to the tyranny of members than advertisers.” Texas Tribunefounder John Thornton has even harsher words for Shafer. Newspapering has only been an absurdly profitable business for about 40 years, he writes. Prior to that, it was a street brawl with very little profit for anyone. We’re just getting back our roots, he suggests.
Reporters Need Not Apply
Rick Burnes used to be an editor in Moscow and at The New York Times online. Now he’s in marketing at search-engine optimization firm HubSpot, which has a very well-read blog. Burnes wants to hire a top journalist to tend the blog, but he thinks it’s unlikely a journalism veteran will get the job. Why? Most journalists don’t believe businesses can produce high-quality content, they are repulsed by the business side of publishing and they don’t understand the link- and promotion-driven culture of the Web. Burnes would like someone to prove him wrong, but at this early stage, he’s skeptical anyone will. “As a hiring manager (and a former journalist) with one chance to hire the right person, I’m wary of somebody with a background in news.”
Or if the HubSpot job doesn’t interest you, try applying at Los Angeles Kings, theLos Angeles County Supervisor’s office or Major League Baseball. Those are just some of the organizations that have recently hired journalists. “All think the news media no longer cover the universe — or their corner of it — adequately and all have hired journalists of their own,” writes James Rainey in the Los Angeles Times. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s new deputy for special projects, Joel Sappell, used to work for the Times. Now he’ll be writing about “little-known county programs and issues” for his new boss. Major League Baseball has employed journalists as beat reporters covering the league’s 30 teams since 2001.
Simon Owens focuses on cartoonists who are making it on the Web. But making it doesn’t necessarily mean raking in the dough. Howard Taylor creates his own books of his Schlock Mercenary comic and sells them out of his home, which resembles a publisher’s warehouse. Many other artists run the comics as a loss leader and make their money on t-shirts. The good news: You can make a living. The bad news: It’s really hard.
Ebony magazine is for sale. Its ad pages are down 35% this year and it’s in the third consecutive year of decline. Ebony’s sister publication, Jet, is in even worse shape. Ad revenues there have fallen 40% this year. Ebony was the first African-American magazine and Johnson Publishing is the world’s largest African-American-owned publishing company. It’s not clear whether Johnson can survive as an independent entity, though. The company is reportedly looking for partnerships, rather than an outright sale, it’s likely that control will pass out of the Johnson family’s hands.
Newspapers have dramatically reduced subscriber churn rates and improved circulation profitability through a combination of price increases, outsourcing and better promotions, the Newspaper Association of America reports. The percentage of subscribers who cancel subscriptions fell to 31.8 percent in 2008 from 54.5 percent in 2000. The improvement appears to reflect publishers’ efforts to refocus their circulation promotion on high-quality readership rather than just adding names to the list.
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