Saturday, January 31, 2009
"Support for the New York Times Comes From Readers Like YOU"
Fundraising for newspapers? An unthinkable idea, until the recent economic downturn. Newspapers everywhere are in a desperate financial situation...so desperate that over the past days a discussion has emerged about whether papers should turn themselves into not-for-profits, supported by endowments.
A particularly excellent blog called "Reflections of a Newsosaur" has been following the plight of print. It's written by Alan Mutter, a former newspaper reporter, columnist and executive.
Some newspapers have already gone down that road. The Anniston (Alabama) Star and The St. Petersburg (Florida) Times is run by the Poynter Institute and Foundation are two papers that are supported by private foundations. Poynter in particular has been a boon to journalism for the intellectual and financial support provided. I've attended a few conferences hosted by Poynter and their website gives some of the most substantial information about journalism and ethics. Best of all, it's free and has been for years.
The recent economic crisis has affected the St. Petersburg newspaper along with so many others. One hopes that the Institute will be able to weather this one.
The idea of funding newspaper journalism through endowments and not-for-profits is a huge step, especially for American newspapers with their long and storied traditions of free speech in the public marketplace. But times are so tough, that the idea of endowments - even supported by government funding - is not being dismissed out of hand.
There are some who would raise constitutional objections to the idea of government funding. It's that First Amendment again. It just keeps coming back. Could the Press still considered to be free in the traditional American context, if it were supported by a government grant? It would certainly have an impact on the inside culture of the American newspaper with its deep libertarian and contrarian tendencies.
US public broadcasting takes government money on the premise that it is providing an effective and needed public service that commercial journalism can't or won't provide. Public broadcasting also has to prove that people are willing to pay directly for the service. Hence the concept of fund raising and the pledge drive that are the essential basis for public radio and television's survival.
Would the New York Times or the Washington Post engage in such infra dig behavior? They probably would, if they had to survive.
And is there a limit even to the remarkable American willingness to give? Charitable donations in the US are greater than any other country, due in part to that long tradition of giving and of volunteerism.
In these tough times, there must be limits, even to that generosity. And while public broadcasting has ruled the philanthropic roost for a long time, there must be people in the development offices of NPR and PBS who are growing pale - even now - at the thought of competing with the New York Times.