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Not-for-profit news is no panacea

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In the effort to save newspapers, one idea that’s been passed around is that of the newspaper as a not-for-profit institution. The argument is that its role is so central to the public good that it can be protected as a non-taxed, not-for-profit entity.

While the argument may be compelling, I don’t think you can call it mainstream. Well-known newspaper analyst Lauren Rich Fine says for-profit newspapers haven’t done all they can to adapt to new market realities. I agree; Newspapers in the United States have been for-profit ventures for their entire existence, and just because their business model is being challenged today doesn’t mean their industry is obsolete.

But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with a news organization that does figure out how to succeed as a non-profit.

An increasing number of non-profit news organizations exist, such as MinnPost and the hyperlocal, hypermodest Heights Observer, for which I’m an active volunteer — and which is part of a growing list of other loosely affiliated Observer projects in and around Greater Cleveland. (Not all of them are not-for-profit; they have in common technology platform — Ninth Estate Software — and a singular evangelist, Jim O’Bryan, founder of the for-profit Lakewood Observer).

A not-for-profit trial balloon has been floated (and seems to be losting altitude) for the troubled Boston Globe.

Now, one of the existing not-for-profits is going the other way; Geoff Dougherty, editor of the 4-year-old Chi-Town Daily News (Chicago)  writes in his blog that the non-profit experiment is over. He says the online citizen journalism news organization needs $1-2 million a year in donations to fulfill its mission. With grants running out and grant-sources ready to move on to other projects, Dougherty indicates private donations peaked at only $300,000 — and even that amount is doubtful this year.

“We are talking with local nonprofits that have expressed an interest in acquiring the [Chi-Town Daily News] website and neighborhood reporting program,” Dougherty writes.

“Ultimately,” he continued, “we believe we will be able to fulfill the same mission we set out to accomplish with the Daily News, though with a new name, a new company, and a different business structure.”

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About the Author:

Bob Rosenbaum is founder and principal of The MarketFarm, a content-oriented strategic communications firm.

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