Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A way to (non)profits?

Since last year, we've been reporting on the rise in nonprofit news ventures. Now, one U.S. senator is trying to make that option a little easier.

Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Maryland), has introduced a bill to allow newspapers to restructure into nonprofit organizations.

This effort, which currently has no co-sponsors, gives newspapers the option to "operate as nonprofits for educational purposes under the U.S. tax code, giving them a similar status to public broadcasting companies," according to the Reuters article.

This seems like a no brainer. NPR and PBS offer valuable coverage that's often not available from traditional profit-driven media. But their small-scale coverage - local and community news - is virtually nonexistent. Cardin's bill would enable community papers to complement other nonprofit media outlets, and ensure that our right to information is not capriciously wiped out.

And in the abstract, widespread nonprofit community newspapers might hold the key to reinventing journalism as we know it.

We are unabashedly optimistic about print journalism. Not because we believe that the printed page is essential - but because people will always care about the mundane, day-to-day events that shape their lives. More often than not, local newspapers have the operational resources to get the story faster and more efficiently, and it on a larger scale, than anyone else in town.

But newsrooms have been under attack for decades, a slow erosion based on a business model that believes readers are the product, and advertisers are the customer. Content and news are just a means to an end.

Nonprofit newspapers, dedicated to providing earnest, quality journalism could undo all that. If nonprofit news gains market share, it could re-establish the primacy of content, and provide a total rebuke to the argument that one-size-fits-all, shared content is good enough for readers.

Still, it's unclear how viable nonprofit status is for papers like the Press-Telegram or the Daily News. There are requirements that would significantly impact the owner and debt structure of MediaNews, and there's virtually no reason to believe the company would consider the idea.

A digital copy of the bill can be found here.

What do you think? Is nonprofit news the future of the industry? If you support community news and want to help protect the future of journalism, contact your state senator and ask for their support on this issue.

Barbara Boxer can be reached here or at (213) 894-5000.

Diane Feinstein can be reached here or at (310) 914-7300 .

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