The shuttering of magazine stalwart Gourmet is just the latest indication that the traditional for-profit media sector is losing its footing -- and its funding. But it's clear the nonprofit public-interest news movement has arrived. It's finally attracted enough money to draw fire from media critics.
Warren Hellman, a San Francisco fixture often described as a "billionaire financier," recently announced a $5 million contribution to the Bay Area News Project, a nonprofit that would involve the public radio station KQED-FM, the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, a number of reporters yet to be hired and, perhaps, the New York Times in producing and presenting quality local and regional journalism that Internet- and recession-bashed newspapers can no longer afford. East Bay Express blogger Robert Gammon quickly bemoaned the supposed edge that free UC Berkeley journalism students will give Hellman's effort: "The massive free-labor workforce will give the new venture a huge advantage over established Bay Area media organizations that depend on paid, veteran journalists..."
Another new nonprofit, the Texas Tribune, also has the brief of providing quality public-interest news; headed by former Texas Monthly editor/publisher Evan Smith, it recently announced $750,000 in grant funding from the Knight Foundation and the Houston Endowment to go along with millions of dollars in other donations. Houston Press blogger Rich Connelly immediately took the yet-to-launch Tribune to the woodshed for accepting $500,000 from the endowment, because once upon a time, when it owned the Houston Chronicle, it was infamous for the number of sacred cows it kept on range.
Meanwhile, the accomplished nonprofit investigative Web site ProPublica - already funded with $30 million from Marion and Herbert Sandler of San Francisco -- was reported to be aggressively expanding its donor base with consultants hired via a foundation grant. Echoing media bloggers who'd raised the issue, the New York Times' David Carr noted that ProPublica editor Paul Steiger makes $570,000 a year, "more than the head of the MacArthur Foundation, which has $5 billion in assets ... and more than the head of the Soros Foundation, which has almost $1.5 billion in assets under control."
The commentary on these nonprofit developments was refreshingly pointed, given the gooing and gaaing that had constituted a lot of recent reporting on nonprofit news. Regardless of business model, news organizations are fair game for scrutiny, and the ethics worries raised are interesting and, to some degree, worthy of thought. But only to a degree; most of the new nonprofits are still relatively quite small. For the nonprofits to provide a real bridge between the dying world of print press and a future new media environment that financially supports in-depth journalism, they will have to figure out how to grow beyond their initial bursts of funding.
My experience with two nonprofit magazines - one that's lasted for decades, and a promising two-year-old toddler called Miller-McCune magazine - demonstrates that what sustains a not-for-profit magazine is a balanced approach to revenue that includes advertising, subscriptions, charitable donations and, as goody-goody as it may sound, a real belief that the journalism being done is important, and would not be done otherwise.
John Mecklin is the editor in chief of Miller-McCune magazine