Are Nonprofit News Sites Doomed to Fail?


This morning, the Poynter Institute reported that Columbia University’s launched a nonprofit news website via their Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media. It’ll be focusing on national and regional reporting about education. Follow? A website, funded as a nonprofit, strictly devoted to education reporting.

For media people who follow this kind of thing, they know that nonprofit news sites aren’t anything new. One of these nonprofit news organizations, ProPublica, just won a Pulitzer Prize this year for their reporting on hospital deaths in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But are they an overly idealistic, failure-bound experiment?

One blogger — former Salon and NPR arts editor Bill Wyman — argues that they absolutely, unequivocally are. And he’s not entirely wrong. Some of the arguments are self-evident:

  • There’s little money in paid journalism with large infrastructures to begin with.
  • The actual news of the day — and especially in-depth reporting — is often some of the least-read content in a paper.
  • The interest for content from an in-depth news nonprofit just isn’t there.
  • The content used to create interest for a nonprofit news source to function — the provocative, eye-grabbing viral-video top-ten T & A level-material proven to attract readers — will ultimately make those working to write actual news feel undermined (and will likely make the underwriters of such an operation feel like they’re getting hosed).
  • And finally, the lack of a visionary (who would inherently be attracted to an operation that can scale, which non-profit news organizations inherently can’t) or the lack of a competitive edge (noting designs as “turgid” and “cluttered”) lead nonprofit news organizations down a doomed path.

The finale of Wyman’s case, in which he calls nonprofit reporting a “dead end”:

The trouble behind all of this is that we want people to be different from the way they are. In reporters’ dreams, we all chip in a little to give them a livelihood, and their earnest, dutiful stories are the talk of the town. But it didn’t happen that way before, and it’s not going to happen in the future.

Is it a crunchy, angry case made by — and this is a difficult fact to overlook, here — a guy who currently doesn’t have a full-time writing gig somewhere? Absolutely.

But is it wrong in any way? Not really. In fact, it’s especially not wrong when it notes the perpetually overlooked fact that the much-hailed ProPublica’s editor is making a high six-figure salary. And that the money nonprofit news organizations are usurping could be going into capitalist enterprises that don’t tout a contrived purity of virtue, that could keep guys like Wyman employed. The bucket of cold water the news industry is in perpetual need of gets through in Wyman’s post. Take a read. The only thing truly wrong with it is that, well, he didn’t get paid to write it.