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Martina Castro, a reporter for the National Public Radio show "Day to Day," produced a recent story exploring the notion that the audience can help fund independent reporting. The piece, "Is Community-Funded Journalism the Answer?" focuses on David Cohn's Spot.Us project, as he asserts that small donations spread over a large group can be immune to manipulation from special interests.
It's an irony not lost on Martina, in my conversations with her for the piece, that NPR is facing such hard times that "Day to Day" is being canceled this spring, along with "News & Notes." Castro has since found part-time employment at Crosscurrents, the pioneering new local news show on KALW-FM covering -- you might have guessed it -- how the recession is affecting Bay Area residents.
Crowd-funding is an interesting and as yet mostly untested thesis, but one that deserves exploring, alongside other ideas about alternative funding sources for journalism. The latest wave of imagining came from David Swensen and Michael Schmidt, two institutional investors who work for Yale University, who proposed, on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, turning The Times into a nonprofit organization with an endowment.
Also a promising line of investigation that deserves a thorough cost-benefit analysis and detailed economic projections. Unfortunately, the opinion piece was too brief to explain what exactly such a $5 billion endowment might pay for. That prompted a wave of attacks from bloggers who pointed out the bailout-size sums that might be necessary to rescue all American newspapers from the marketplace. Nonprofit ownership is a "cop-out," according to New West Network founder Jonathan Weber.
Geoff Dougherty, editor of the Chicago nonprofit local site Chi Town Daily News, blogged that nonprofit news was neither the easy way out nor a sinecure insulated from market forces.
People know nonprofits exist solely to serve the community. They have a sneaking, and these days all-too-accurate, suspicion that their for-profit newspaper would sell the community down the river for the right price.
But nonprofit, for-profit -- all journalism organizations have to have an income if they want to remain professionally produced and thus influential. So it's the revenue source, not the ownership model, that really determines whether high-quality original reporting is possible.
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