A nonprofit national newspaper?

Written by Michael on February 4th, 2006

The other day, my friend David asked me whether I’d ever heard anyone talk about a nonprofit national newspaper, supported in part by philanthropy, a la The Atlantic or NPR. Perhaps the distribution costs would be too high, he wondered, but what about an online newspaper? This is what I told him.

The more common debate at the moment (and I don’t know why it hasn’t happened to a greater extent before) is reprivatization. Some small nonprofits, like the Anniston Star, already exist. And the impending Knight-Ridder collapse has led to talk about some sort of union or employee ownership, which would be cra-zee.

The biggest impediment to a national nonprofit daily would be distribution. USA Today took 5 years of free stories from across the Gannett empire to massage its distribution model into profitability, and nobody has that kind of cash flow except private corporations. (USA Today still moves a huge share of its ink through single-copy sales, and most of those are hidden in the fine print of hotel bills. It’s not high-quality circulation, but they make up for it with their high-quality demographic of traveling businesspeople. So it works, but I’m not sure there’s room for more.)

Even NPR is just a content provider, something like the AP, not a full-fledged distribution organization. It sloughs that work off to its less financially secure member stations.

Of course, the Internet is the heaven to which distribution models all dream of going when they die. And Salon actually comes close to being a nonprofit Internet newspaper. (Nonprofit in the sense that it never turns a profit.)

The basic problem with an Internet newspaper, even a nonprofit one, is that online ads make too little money to support a daily newsgathering organization of national quality. If even a break-even model is going to be found for the Internet, I think for-profit companies are going to have to find it, because nobody else has the money to spare.

All that said, if my nightmares come true and newspapers gradually slice their news operations down to TV station staffing levels, there will be a big upmarket opening for a few companies (perhaps the New York Times, some satellite-distributed version of NPR and a few other big papers) who will continue to provide quality news for the few who can afford it. A nonprofit newspaper might be one of them.

So: I am pessimistic.


2 Comments so far ↓

  1. saturae says:

    Have you heard of the St. Petersburg Times? Granted, it’s not a national paper, but it’s Florida’s largest circulating daily newspaper. I’ve read it for years. Here’s a little article on it that I stumbled upon (I’m researching nonprofit newspapers too): http://dealscape.thedealblogs.com/2007/03/would_newspaper_industry_make.php

  2. saturae says:

    sorry, the link won’t paste right. here it is again:



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