Thinking about ‘forever’

Late last month, Poynter.org profiled a cross-section of nonprofit news organizations, noting that they "are proving to be healthy but slow to scale". Since the article appeared, I've been mulling over how I feel about the concept of nonprofit journalism.

I live in northern New Jersey, a state that has both significant wealth and a host of social challenges. One of these challenges, somewhat surprisingly, is hunger.

Throughout the United States a number of organizations have been formed to deal with malnutrition and hunger. In my area, the active organization is the Community FoodBank of New Jersey (CFBNJ), a nonprofit that I've supported financially since the late 1980s. In telling this part of the story, I'm not looking for applause; the donations have been modest, if persistent.

CFBNJ recently sent a mailing to suggest including the organization as the beneficiary of a major gift from my estate. This assumes I have an estate, of course, but on its face the request is pretty reasonable. I've been writing checks for more than two decades, so I'm clearly someone who supports the organization.

Lots of nonprofits, particularly educational institutions, try to cultivate these kinds of gifts. It's a good way to tap into longer-term funds. And that's actually what gave me pause.

The United States remains the richest country on earth, but we have not found a way to adequately provide for all of our citizens. This problem extends to health care as well as malnutrition. For more than 25 years, CFBNY has been working to meet the immediate needs of hungry children and adults, and the problem has not become smaller. To their telling, the need has grown over that time.

This is just wrong. It's not CFBNJ's fault; far from it. But in the last quarter century we have not solved an underlying problem, one that leaves a notable share of our population hungry and in need of food bank services.

There's no telling when I will no longer write among us, but in actuarial terms, I should be around for another 30 years or so. Convincing me to fund CFBNJ today is easy; the need is apparent. Asking me to commit to funding CFBNJ three decades from now is discouraging. It means we'll have spent half a century shoveling against the tide.

"People who are hungry" is an immediate need, but if it is the only problem we address, we'll always need food banks and charitable support to provide a safety net. That's not the world we want to live in.

This is the frame that came to mind when I revisited the Poynter piece. Rick Edmonds captures Steve Waldman talking about finding stable, long-term sources of funding for nonprofit reporting:

"The winners in the new economy,” like Google, Apple and AT&T, Waldman said, are making tens of millions in profit per quarter. “If they would put just a tiny part of that into this problem,” he said, serious journalism could thrive.

It's always tempting to make the "one percent" argument, but I find it discouraging (particularly coming from Waldman, who wrote the FCC report on "The information needs of communities"). The long-term problem isn't a shortfall in charitable funding. It's a shortfall in the number of people who value journalism enough to pay for it.

This set of mental models is corrosive: "Journalism is long-term. Journalism is expensive. For-profit companies won't invest. We need to fund this work as a charity." It is made worse when we leave off the critical word: "Forever."

I don't think "forever" is in the cards here. There's a reason that "nonprofit journalism doesn't scale". Scale – growth – requires capital. You get capital from profits, loans and investments. And you get profits, loans and investments in businesses that have shown they can produce and sell something people value.

I don't know what builds demand for journalism. I've posited a model, but it's just a model. I do know that if we can't figure it out, journalism itself will wither on the vine. We owe it to the next generation to revive demand, not just preserve supply.

To be clear, there are very legitimate roles nonprofits can play. Establishing and sharing best practices and building capacity through things like the use of shared code libraries are two examples. But creating nonprofit entities simply to investigate and report for us once again requires us confront "forever".

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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