Nonprofits and Journalism: An Interview with Mark Jurkowitz

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Editors’ note: In the United States, there is a long-standing conceptual and practical interconnection between the news media and nonprofits. Both are creatures of the First Amendment, which accords citizens rights to a “free press” and to “free and active association.” Both of these rights are considered essential to a healthy democracy and an informed citizenry. But journalism as we have known it is now widely considered at risk because the business that has supported much of it—that is, newspapers—has failed. As a result, many proposals have been floated to protect the integrity of journalism, and much experimentation is occurring. Some would like to see journalism be more fully “owned” by the nonprofit sector, for instance. Mark Jurkowitz talks with the Nonprofit Quarterly about where the media industry stands and where it is likely to go.

Nonprofit Quarterly: You have been involved in media analysis for a few decades. How have you seen journalism change over that period?

Mark Jurkowitz: Obviously, we have a dramatically fragmented news environment. The news cycle has sped up from a once-every-24-hours schedule where a gatekeeper was controlling the flow—you would pick up your daily paper or turn on Tom Brokaw once a day—to news that is available on a variety of platforms that is delivered in microseconds. People can get information on demand even when they are walking down the street.

There are myriad news organizations now functioning with very different standards and principles that make information available to people. A lot of it is much more ideological than it used to be. What used to differentiate U.S. media from a lot of overseas media was the implied guarantee that when we covered the news, we would do so objectively. There wasn’t ideological media and news gathering. That’s changed. People now can pick and choose information—information that in some ways validates their own viewpoint. People now have the option to practice cafeteria-style news gathering, which is good in some ways and bad in others.

A lot of the paternalism is gone. It’s no longer the province of major newspaper editors to determine what the American public gets to find out about. It’s a transformation from “gatekeeper journalism” to “geyser journalism.” By that I mean no longer is information sifted from the top down, but in many respects it explodes from the bottom up. All you need to have is one news purveyor deciding to make a story public, and it quickly will work its way through the entire food chain. All of this is made possible by the Web.

NPQ: So how does this affect the economics of journalism?

MJ: The real crisis we see now in the newspaper industry has been caused by the failure to effectively monetize online journalism. The idea that somehow the content providers would be able to ring money and payments out of the Googles of the world—which have gotten rich slicing and dicing their content—is pretty much an argument that’s still raging. But it looks to me like the barn door is open and the horse is well down into the field. There’s still an argument over micropayments and paywalls and getting news consumers to pay for information online, but the overarching dynamic so far has been that people really aren’t willing to pay for information online when it’s so plentiful elsewhere.

The thought was—if you think of it in terms of a relay race—that there was going to be this baton handoff. Old-media forms suffering from declining readership, declining circulation, and declining advertising problems brought on by the loss of classifieds would hand the revenue baton off to the online world. I think people have been taken aback by the inability of journalism to create a workable business model for the new-media model. For all who thought, “We’ll make this money on the Internet,” it’s just not happening.

NPQ: What is all of this doing to the quality of investigative journalism?

MJ: Information is always going to be plentiful. The question is, “What’s the quality of the information?” Good journalism, in-depth journalism, sophisticated journalism is expensive. Investigative units cost money. Foreign bureaus cost money. Washington bureaus cost money. Allowing beat reporters and science and health reporters to work and spend time understanding complex issues costs a lot of money. That kind of journalism was traditionally subsidized by the legacy media that’s under such duress now. It’s not clear—while nobody thinks there is going to be some kind of information blackout—who’s going to pay for the kind of quality journalism that a civil society needs to keep informed.

There are some people—many of them working in the industry—who say, “We have to come up with something to save journalism as we know it.” There are others, and they tend to be sort of more new-media advocates, who say, “This is an understandable and important and even necessary economic revolution that essentially has to happen. Every once in a while, industries—through forces of change—are dramatically reassembled and reorganized. That involves a lot of temporary chaos.”

NPQ: Experimentation that crosses all sectors seems to be going on. Can you briefly characterize where all of that is?

MJ: We still have a basic market strategy that assumes that the real problem here is simply we’ve got to be smarter about making people pay for information. There is a sense that some of the advertising chaos that’s happened will straighten out too once the economy starts to right itself. Others think there is still an untapped reservoir of revenue in the consumer. They say, “There’s got to be a way to make the news consumer pay in a way that’s going to sustain journalism.”

Then there are those who advocate for a greater government and policy role in saving the news industry. When you’re talking about the public sector, there may not be one concerted effort. There are a lot of thoughts and ideas floating along out there: everything from turning newspapers into public media in the same way that NPR is or that PBS is. There is a lot of talk about changing tax law or even changing bankruptcy law.

You may start to see a series of patchwork, situational government interventions, perhaps based on local pressures, that’s going to occur around the country. Or it may be in a completely disconnected way in which a local newspaper goes under and the politician or local officials feel compelled to do something. In Boston, that actually happened recently when the Bay State Banner, the city’s African-American paper with a long and proud legacy, was about to go under, and it received, I believe, a subsidy from city hall. So, literally, the mayor went in and decided he was going to bail out the newspaper.

NPQ: What about the idea of more fully housing the function of journalism within nonprofits?

MJ: The newspaper as nonprofit entity would allow the news organization to take donations and contributions and would change their tax mandates. We are seeing the rise of some nonprofit operations, the most notable probably being ProPublica, which is essentially an investigative news organization. It’s now got, I believe, about 30 editorial staffers. It’s run by Paul Steiger, who is the former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal. It was founded and funded with the concept that it’s really expensive for media to do investigative journalism. When ProPublica began, many major papers no longer had their investigative units. So they decided they wanted to establish themselves as an investigative clearinghouse for the media, and they would create this news organization devoted entirely to investigative journalism.

You used to have the basic advertiser-driven model of journalism: advertisers paid for journalism. Yes, sure: subscribers bought newspapers, but as everybody knows, that was always a small portion of the revenue. Most newspapers lived and died with ads. It is a situation that certainly could create some conflicts of interest. Obviously, the idea that powerful businesspeople in your community or elsewhere were essentially helping fund your newspaper is not ideal. It could and did create conflicts at times—probably more in omission than commission. It wasn’t an ideal situation, and everybody in the business probably has horror stories, or at least conspiracy theories, about how that played itself out. But over time, it became accepted wisdom that this was a pretty good way to go.

There are similar concerns with the nonprofit model. Who is funding you, and who is giving you money? In the advertiser-driven model, the idea that you were collecting a pot of money from advertisers and businesspeople with all sorts of varied interests seemed more benign, perhaps, than collecting money from institutions, donors, charitable institutions that may be doing other work that clearly has a point of view.

In any given situation, you can establish procedures and standards for minimizing the risk of conflict. Newspapers have always set up firewalls separating the editorial product from the publisher. But it’s a perception issue. According to survey data, we know people see the mainstream media as biased. There’s a lot of public skepticism about the news media, even under the advertising model. You can only imagine the potential problems you would have with a news organization funded by somebody that clearly had a well-known political point of view. It gives critics an additional way to make a public argument against hard-hitting journalism.

One of the other fears is of a news organization that receives charitable giving. An institution that’s highly dependent on giving and that doesn’t insulate itself from broader economic problems is highly vulnerable from a business point of view. The fortunes of charitable institutions wane and flow with the broader economy, so there can be tough times even under the best of circumstances.

NPQ: Do you have predictions about the new home for journalism in this country?

MJ: The only honest answer is, I don’t know. It’s been fascinating to watch the evolution of this, and I’d say if you asked the question five years ago, people would have said, “OK, we know there is a transition going on to online digital media; that’s going to happen. We’re getting comfortable with it. We think in 10 years the New York Times might not print or it might be a once-a-week supplement for an elderly elite population, and we’re all comfortable with that.” In other words, the idea is, well, there will be some natural order of things, and basically journalism as we know it will largely be an online phenomenon and it will happen in 10 years. Then the recession hit. We calculated in our annual report last year that the impact of the recession has doubled the problems that the media industry has had.

Within the past year, that calculus is all gone, and we just don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean, the frantic pace of ideas and debates and arguments about what is happening and what’s going to happen has picked up so dramatically that it’s a clear reflection of an industry that just doesn’t know what’s going to happen next.

Certainly there is going to be a whole series of things tried that will probably work for some and not for others. We’ve already seen a tremendous paring down of costs. There will be unprecedented partnerships. There will be some nonprofit options. There may be more direct government intervention, and there will be experimentation on the market side. We are going to lose news organizations. We are going to see some well-known news organizations change and evolve so dramatically as to be unrecognizable. There will probably be a major American city without a newspaper in the not-too-distant future. And as a whole, the print product is going to be greatly diminished when we get to the other side of this.

Now, one of the great contradictions is, online journalism is going to work. The cost of production is so much smaller. There’s no gas-guzzling truck that has to carry something to your house. There’s no big, multimillion-dollar press manned by union workers that’s got to crank this stuff out day in and day out. The barriers to publication are so reduced. It’s going to be so much cheaper to provide this kind of information material online. All this is true. But the fact right now is that about 90 percent of all the revenue of news organizations that have both online and print products is coming from the print product, so you can’t afford to shut down the Boston Globe newspaper and make even better, because you’d lose the overwhelming majority of your revenue.

So you can see, many of the preconceptions about how this was going to work have all gone by the boards right now, and it’s kind of a “man the lifeboats” kind of situation.

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved by the Nonprofit Information Networking Association, Boston, MA. Volume 16, Issue 3. Subscribe | buy issue | reprints