September 3, 2017, Poynter
The Times’ move is predictable and notable. Bosses there know that despite the startling increase in its paid digital subscribers—it has more than 2 million digital-only subscribers, in addition to 1 million print subscribers—it hasn’t come close to making up for the revenue lost from the decline in print advertising and the near-duopoly on digital advertising by Google and Facebook.
So James Warren, a national columnist for U.S. News & World Report and a former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Tribune, writes in his analysis for Poynter. It’s true that this move by the New York Times to look for philanthropic support is not all that surprising. Nonprofits and for-profits alike are still searching for a strong business model for investigative journalism. Generally speaking, as current models remain in flux as they evolve with their environments, walking away from a potential revenue source would be unwise for an entity like the NYT.
It does raise questions, though. First, of course, the Times is not alone; other major news publications like the Guardian have recognized the same opportunity in an increasingly structured way, so what will that do to funding for the smaller news outlets that have been enriching the news landscape? Second, one has to wonder whether it is truly necessary.
Lastly, will these outlets inadvertently create a narrow ghetto of running what is fundable in investigative news? Alan Mutter, an industry analyst, observes, “Third-party funding necessarily raises questions of (1) whether a topic would have been covered if the money were not available, and (2) whether the reporting and conclusions of the resulting stories were influenced by the need to please donors, especially if the publisher has a hope of obtaining future funding.” Now, multiply these concerns, because other news sites watch every business model move of the New York Times, making it something of a wedge.
The Times, founded and continuously published since 1851, winning more Pulitzer Prizes than any other newspaper, and long regarded as America’s “newspaper of record,” has 2,200,000 digital-only subscribers and a daily print circulation of 571,500. Still, it has felt a loss of revenue from market changes. Advertising revenue made up 63 percent of the Times’ revenue before the advent of the Internet some twenty years ago. Today, subscriptions account for 61 percent.
However, the Times makes it clear it doesn’t see itself as exactly needy at the moment:
We are setting our sights high. Even with the strength of our business and the size of our newsroom, there are opportunities to extend the reach and impact of our journalism with additional support. And we believe we can also work with philanthropies and universities to launch ventures that will help the wider world of journalism, not just the Times.
Warren notes that the Times is not new to receiving philanthropic support. This 40,000-word, grant-funded piece timed to the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring spanned an entire (and consequently ad-free) issue of the New York Times Magazine last August. He also shared his personal experience in working with the Times on a nonprofit basis.
There’s a substantial amount of early history in the fitful transition to seeking new resources for quality journalism. Indeed, I was part of a two-and-a-half-year experiment, probably forgotten already by many rank and filers at the Times, whereby our nonprofit Chicago News Cooperative produced local content for the Midwest print edition of the Times.
We weren’t on the Times’ payroll and didn’t report to them. But, we produced two pages of content twice a week for a Midwest print edition (all our content, including my column, ultimately went through copy desks in New York for final approval).
It was the first time the Times editors allowed non-Times editors to originate and select stores. Editorially, the venture worked and expanded to San Francisco and then to Texas. But eventually the grant money ran out, new subscriptions did not come close to covering the funding gaps, and the Times ended the experiment.
As the Times begins its internal and external dialogue about nonprofit funding opportunities, as well as the attendant legal and ethical considerations that Warren discusses in his well-sourced article, it may need to also face challenges to its growth that money alone cannot overcome. The long and slow decline of the traditional for-profit news publishing business model is a familiar story and research shows that most readers today simply seek affirmation rather than objective news.—Jim Schaffer