National Archives at College Park / Public domain

March 30, 2020; New Yorker and New York Times

There have been many predictions about how life will change in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of these recent discussions concerns something not entirely health-related: the fate of US journalism. There is widespread agreement that current conditions could presage the end of journalism as we know it. One view sees the decline as dangerous to US democracy. Another view suggests that nonprofit journalism might be able to fill the gap left by the decline of commercial outlets.

As Michael Luo in the New Yorker points out, the crisis in the commercial model for local journalism dates back at least a decade. Some national commercial outlets, however, have not only survived, but thrived. Back in 2009, the New York Times developed its “paywall” model. Instead of relying on advertising for its online news service, it charged readers for access. Visitors to the site were allowed to read 20 articles a month for free but would have to pay to read more than that. This worked for the Times and a few other papers that have built national audiences, like the Washington Post, but it has been far harder for local media, even as they expand digitally, to emulate that success. Instead, local media find themselves trying to sustain themselves on rapidly declining advertising revenues.

This advertising decline, Luo observes, is only likely to get worse as the pandemic shuts down major portions of the economy. Only national outlets like the New York Times, which have shifted to the subscriber-based formula, remain in a strong position. This loss of free news sources supported by advertising revenue suggests to Luo a growing class divide in information access, undermining democratic functioning. In other words, increasingly, only people who can afford to buy news are likely to be well informed.

On the other hand, new models have arisen for journalism. NPQ has covered many stories about this, looking at how nonprofit structures are being adopted for online journalism, particularly at the local level. In fact, NPQ included it second on its list of top trends for 2019. Because of this trend, Ben Smith in the New York Times sees a rosier future. He references people like Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat, who think it is time for major chains like Gannett to disappear, to be replaced by nonprofit news organizations like hers.

Green and a colleague, John Thornton, have put their money on the line in creating the American Journalism Project, which is intended to support local online nonprofit news sources. NPQ explored this endeavor almost exactly a year ago; it’s an interesting model with a good base of support. But is it sustainable over time, and which local organizations will be supported? For his part, Luo acknowledges the rise of nonprofit news sources, but is less optimistic about their ability to fill the gap, contending that, “The collective audience for nonprofit journalism…is still relatively limited.”

Prior to the pandemic, a report issued by the Institute for Nonprofit News, a nonprofit journalism membership organization, looked at revenue trends. The report shows that for the first time, donations from foundations have fallen below 50 percent of total revenue, while individual giving has risen to 39 percent. Of the individual givers, major donors account for 70 percent of the total. (In this case, a “major” gift is defined as one above $5,000.) The report concludes, “Nonprofit news revenue shows growing numbers of people are willing to financially support a free press on an ongoing basis.”

According to a recent report in Poynter, Gannett, the publisher of USA Today, has announced staffing cuts, pay reductions, and more as a result of loss of revenue during the pandemic. It may be that what Smith and Luo have predicted has already started. On the other hand, reports continue to suggest that news readership is incredibly high. The question is how to take advantage of that.

Steve Waldman in the Columbia Journalism Review responds to Smith’s Times article and the suggestion to let local commercial news organizations go. He believes there are ways to save them. One would be for the government to run at least half of its public service ads about good hygiene through local sources.

In the longer run, though, Waldman contends that government should encourage the transition of local news to a nonprofit structure. This has already been done successfully by the Salt Lake Tribune and others. Such a shift, Waldman adds, could be facilitated by increasing federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but restructuring it so that it supports local nonprofit news outlets, as well as public television stations. Specifically, Waldman proposes renaming the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as the “Corporation for Public Media,” with at least $100 million set aside to support nonprofit digital media, “using the same nonprofit, non-partisan approach that it has taken in the past.”

All of these analysts agree that the era of local commercial media (at least of the newspaper variety) is coming to an end. Luo suggests that democracy is threatened by this shift, while Smith is more optimistic that an emerging nonprofit journalism model can preserve broad-based access to information and thereby bolster democracy. Waldman and INN likewise see promise in nonprofit journalism filling the gap.

Certainly, the growth of nonprofits in journalism is impressive. But if, according to INN, the average employment of a nonprofit newsroom is 12 and there are about 230 nonprofit newsrooms in INN’s membership, then that would mean that nonprofits employ less than 3,000 people out of a total journalism workforce that still numbered 37,900 as of 2018. In short, while nonprofits may be able to fill the gap, there remains a large gap to fill.—Rob Meiksins