Dukes, pretenders to the throne, and citoyens: 3 discussions on the future of journalism that need to come together

5 June 2009

When I started this blog a little while ago, I thought I’d mainly focus on the (as I put it) “intersection of journalism, fundraising, and technology” – figuring that I’d eventually get lost in the weeds/arcana/geekdom of fundraising since that’s what I can bring to the larger table  chewing over the future of (biz models to support) journalism (aka FoJ). So I reached out to Dave Cohn at Spot.us here, here and here, because I think he’s doing something really interesting. And I’ll get back to you, Dave (I owe you answers to those 2 questions you posed for me).

But the past couple of weeks, when it comes to thinking about work-related stuff, I’ve headed in a different direction – and think I’ll probably keep doing that for a bit longer before I head back to the weeds. Reason being that there’s been some really interesting thinking/doing/arguing about the larger structures through which journalism – however we end up defining that term in the near future – will be organized.

Way I see it, there are 3 discussions under way right now. My impression is that while there is some overlap in the individuals participating, for the most part they’re being carried on in separate silos. I’d like to think that one way or the other, we can pull them together – because when we do I suspect very good things will happen.

So, what are those 3 discussions?

Inside the castle: This is the one least likely to be brought into any sort of connection with the other two – until the castle walls are breached, i.e., the biz model crisis gets even worse than it is now (or, practically speaking, when a community organizes to save a major metro daily, and there are no other takers.)

Right now, this one – as evidenced by the NAA meeting outside Chicago recently – looks to be pretty much closed off to options other than those that seize back control for those who live inside the castle parapets – by exacting more tribute from the peons, or by laying siege against other information duchies (read: Google). The problem for the castle defenders is that just as gunpowder and cannon made stone walls vulnerable, the journalism barbarians at the gate risk making the warmaking strategies of the news dukes and duchesses largely irrelevant. The barbarians are swarming throughout the countryside, isolating the elites behind the walls, and worst of all – ignoring them. (I know, I’m exaggerating, but you get the point.)

Pretenders to the throne: The second piece right now is the  public policy proposal that Free Press announced at their recent DC conference on changing the media. I know there’s a dispositional tilt away from government when it comes to journalism, but that’s why it’s so important to remember that we’re not talking strictly about journalism here, it’s about the political economy of media. So far, (a) I haven’t seen anything that does better than these guys have done and (b) to my knowledge not one of the big A list media critics have really sat down and worked their way through this stuff. This is a big mistake; we need to engage at the level of public policy – and not only around net neutrality. I think it’s that important.

Yeomen and citoyens: And then there’s the third discussion which came into sharp focus at a conference on nonprofit media at (of all places, since I’ve clearly stretched the metaphor way beyond appropriateness) Duke University in late May. What distinguished this meeting from others was that it was called by 3 academic centers at Duke dealing with media and democracy, strategic philanthropy and civil society, and philanthropy and voluntarism – which meant that from the get-go the people around the table brought a much broader perspective to the topic than most conferences on the FoJ have displayed.

Plus, the charge was different. The issue on the table was this: let’s assume that the last stand of the Dukes is about to take place, and that it’s probably a matter of months before another major American metropolitan daily goes belly up. In Denver and Seattle, no one had any idea what to do, we had no rapid response capacity, the rules tilted against a smart rescue, and so both towns are now poorer for it. Next time, can we be more ready?

So, what are the options now available to convert existing or establish new media outlets (with emphasis on metro daily outlets) to some kind of a nonprofit structure? At the very least, to keep something in place until a something emerges that makes sense for the new information universe we’re living in. (For instance, here’s Steve Coll in The New Yorker writing about a piece Penelope Muse Abernathy prepared for the conference exploring alternative ownership options for a post-Sulzberger New York Times).

The Duke participants came up with some interesting ideas (which intersect with some of the thinking you’ll also find in the Free Press materials). And they did a good job of realistically assessing some of the alternative structures, from direct nonprofit ownership, to a special kind of low-profit limited liability corporation (“L3C“) to for profit enterprises with nonprofit affiliates or subsidized content. Still lots of questions and not a lot of clear answers: that’s going to have to wait til we actually start seeing real experiments. Who knows? That might be right here in San Francisco, if Warren Hellman and his crew keep working at it.

I’ll have more to say about one issue that came up during the Duke conference, which will take me back into the weeds, but I recommend Jay Hamilton’s summary of the conference, and the papers that were prepared for it. And for more on the Duke conference, take a look at Jim Barnett’s posts at his blog, Nonprofit Road, here and here.

One Response to “Dukes, pretenders to the throne, and citoyens: 3 discussions on the future of journalism that need to come together”

  1. […] v the IRS and what it might mean for non profit newspapers 15 June 2009 A few days ago, I said I would come back to one specific item from the Duke conference a while back on non profit media, […]

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