December 17, 2012; Source: Nieman Journalism Lab

A recent Columbia Journalism School report from C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky, “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present,” surveys the current landscape and future scenarios for journalism and, within this wider frame, nonprofit journalistic initiatives. Analyzing the report for the Nieman Journalism Lab, media scholar Rasmus Kleis Nielsen notes that the authors divide American journalism into two distinct camps: “big (declining) commercial news organizations and a multitude of much smaller (often struggling) nonprofit news organizations…” Not that we wish to engage in a game of navel-gazing, but given our focus, we thought it would be helpful to share some of the key nonprofit journalism takeaways from the report:

  • The authors predict that, “There will be more nonprofit news organizations, driven by several kinds of donation—direct cash subsidy by philanthropies and other donor organizations…user donations of cash…and in-kind donations of the time and talents of a particular community…”
  • As these new players continue to come on the scene, the report points to the importance of enabling them to reach a point of relative stability: “New forms of news production, from Andy Carvin’s curated Twitter feeds to MapLight’s database journalism to the stabilization of nonprofit web publishers like the Voice of San Diego or the Texas Tribune, have to become institutionalized,” the report argues, “because without the virtues of institutions, albeit ones fitted to digital production, these new efforts will not be able to survive or to become persistent or powerful enough to discipline other institutional actors.”
  • The report eschews overarching prescriptions for new ways of doing things or more traditional journalistic models, instead calling for ongoing experimentation to ferret out what works: “Most of the for-profit vs. nonprofit discussion is useless,” the report argues [and elswhere, the authors refer to for-profit news outlets that consistently lose money, like the New Yorker and the New York Post, as “de facto nonprofits”]…“Any way of keeping expenses below revenue is a good way…New organizations should assume that cost control is the central discipline and that many sources of subsidy available to startups have a limited lifespan. They should master working with amateurs, crowds, machines or other partners to keep cost low and leverage high. To survive, new news startups will need to take on some of the routinization of work and stabilization of process of the older institutions they are challenging. They should not fear becoming a little boring.”
  • Importantly, it seems to us, the authors also emphasize the societal value of sharing successful models widely: “Starting a new news organization isn’t as hard as stabilizing these startups over the medium to long term. Because of this, successful startups…should create publicly accessible ‘startup guides’ that can be used by emerging news organizations….These organizations and others like them should receive foundation money that will allow them to engage in this ‘meta-reflection.’”

The report’s recommendation for new news organizations is one word: “Survive.” That is easier said than done, but the report’s recommendation for foundation-funded “meta-reflection” from those sources which are able to make it work might help (the foundation funding is crucial, the authors point out, because news outlets have content to produce daily and thus they may not put information sharing at the top of their list unless given resources for the explicit purpose of doing so). While we agree that the nonprofit/for-profit debate may be overplayed, this information sharing function is one area where we suspect that nonprofit news organizations—dedicated to a democracy-enabling mission without the for-profit concern of vanquishing the competition for maximum profit—may be more inclined to participate for the benefit of other news organizations and, ultimately, a better-served public. –Mike Keefe-Feldman