This week the owners of Crosscut.com, of whom I am one, will likely vote to dissolve Crosscut LLC and donate the assets to a newly formed nonprofit called Crosscut Public Media. As Publisher David Brewster has written, a non-profit media outlet has potentially more sources of revenue and can be more pure as to mission. While it can continue to sell advertising, a nonprofit can also solicit reader memberships and grants, much as public radio does.
In 2003, National Public Radio received a generous bequest of $225 million from Joan Kroc, the wife of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, which boosted the public radio network's endowment and enabled it to expand news coverage and other programming with an estimated annual windfall of $10 million. The donation came with no strings attached.
That's a journalist's dream — a reliable stream of revenue that ensures news decisions can be made without outside interference. But without that sort of massive endowment, what does a non-profit news operation look like?
It could look like ProPublica, the national investigative-oriented news organization which is supported entirely, for now, by grants from a handful of foundations whose long-term support is not guaranteed:
The Sandler Foundation has made a major, multi-year commitment to fund ProPublica. Other philanthropic contributions have been received as well, and more are welcomed.
It is hoped that, over time, once stories begin to be published, and a "brand" built, other sources of sustainable funding, including possibly from readers, viewers and users, can be developed. The non-profit form, of course, meaningfully reduces the necessary revenue for sustainability.
ProPublica's done some noteworthy work in the early going, such as the ongoing examination of "midnight regulations" that outgoing administrations try to quietly pass in the final months of control of the executive branch. The staff of 38 includes 17 investigative reporters focused, says the site's About Us page, "exclusively on truly important stories, stories with 'moral force.' We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them." It's a really promising start. But so far ProPublica has not upstaged the investigative efforts of established media. And its most prominent donor has a decided point of view, having contributed money with political intent. This might not pose a problem, in the form of a real or perceived conflict of interest. But it's a relationship worth watching.
So can Crosscut, the local-news Web site I helped launch, fill a similar, maybe even broader mission at the local level? I hope so. But I have concerns, which I have expressed to others at Crosscut, about the switch to non-profit status. For the sake of discussion, here they are. I don't have answers to these questions, but they are questions any non-profit news outfit needs to consider, especially at the local level. Whether it's a business or a nonprofit, Crosscut as we envisioned it can certainly live up to a level of excellence like the "Principles of Journalism" proffered by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, to cite one example. But proceeding as a nonprofit is not without challenges.
While a nonprofit might have more sources of potential capital and revenue to pay for good journalism and community discussion — philanthropic grants and tax-deductible donations in addition to advertising — there's no assurance such money will be there in this tough economy.
In addition to selling advertising, a non-profit news organization will have to sell itself to the philanthropic rich and to the general public — two new constituencies which must be pleased with what Crosscut does and could apply pressure, by denying funding, on the journalism it practices.
Will employees of Microsoft or Boeing want to become subscribing supporters of Crosscut if it publishes content critical of Microsoft or Boeing? Will Seattle's substantial and interconnected philanthropies, governed by influential people with means, want to support an organization whose mission is to afflict the comfortable? Could an exposé of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, a local sacred cow if there ever was one, be published by a news outlet whose funding is dependent on the same network of philanthropists and civic leaders? Hopefully, the answer to all these questions is yes.
But the answer also might be no. The Seattle Times was able to withstand a shitstorm of negative reaction to its Fred Hutch series in 2001 because no one in Seattle, no one advertiser, or even a handful of advertisers or subscribers, could exert fiscal pressure on the newspaper. It is an independent business. At the national level, The New York Times is able to practice journalism "without fear or favor" (successfully or not) because it is a private enterprise. When you have hat in hand, you are in no position to speak truth to power.
That doesn't mean you can't practice journalism, but the journalism that results from public and private benevolence is, I think, less likely to have moral force, to use ProPublica's phrase, than that of a self-reliant, commercially supported news service. Think about the extent and kind of journalism practiced by the Seattle-area public broadcasting stations. To be sure, journalism is not at the core of their respective missions, but inasmuch as they have a slice of the public airwaves, shouldn't it be? It certainly could be. But they aren't setting the local agenda, they're following it. And sometimes they are not even doing that. Why not? Because they don't have to. Their donors are quite pleased with what they get now. And the people managing the stations aren't inconvenienced by boat-rocking journalism, which requires a strong stomach.
I'm not saying a non-profit Crosscut can't surpass existing public media outlets in the practice of journalism. But with a diversified revenue stream come new complications, new pressures.
In the next day or so I will write about why we shouldn't give up on commercially supported journalism. Clearly, it's not going to work for Crosscut right now, but that doesn't mean it can't work for existing news outlets, even those struggling.