Animating the Newspaper Business, or 'Z-Philanthra', Journalism Superhero!
June 25, 2009
(Susan Herr is the founder of PhilanthroMedia, a New York City-based new media company working to promote dialogue for discerning donors and advance ideas that matter. Her op-ed piece "It's Time to Reassess Venture Philanthropy 2.0" appeared in PND in February 2007. This is her first post for PhilanTopic.)
Hollywood and Marvel Comics are missing a bet if they don't pick up where the final season of HBO's The Wire left off by tapping the drama inherent in the decimation of America's newspaper industry.
Consider the cast of characters. An Evil Publisher -- like the Los Angeles Times’ David Hiller, who gutted his award-winning newsroom to save the once-enormous profits it generated. A Valiant Chief Editor -- like James O'Shea who got the boot from Hiller for standing up for his scrappy reporters. A Deluded Entrepreneur -- like real estate tycoon Sam Zell, whose leveraged buyout of both the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times proved he thinks he can hold back the ocean. Add to the mix a motley assortment of Nefarious Punks, including DailyKos founder Markos "Kos" Moulitsas and Dastardly Diva Ariana Huffington, who is old enough to know better but is still ruining everything! Bang! Pow! Ratta-tat-tat!
Our blockbuster formula even has sex appeal, with SuperDonors like Herb and Marion Sandler, who are quietly spending millions to advance nonprofit journalistic innovations such as ProPublica. In that spirit, our Heroine could be a bombshell named Z-Philanthra who couples uncanny understanding of philanthropic strategy with deep pockets sewn into a costume that would make the Avengers’ Emma Peel pea-green with envy.
Any big-time producer smart enough to know how HUGE this idea is would have booked the red-eye (or driven a hybrid?) to NYC last month to attend a panel discussion hosted by Philanthropy New York entitled "Internet to Newspapers: Drop Dead." Since I didn't see anyone wearing all black, I'll provide a recap of the philanthropic approaches discussed there that could form the basis for Z-Philanthra's efforts. And, for any producers who might be interested, I’ll provide an assessment (on a scale of one to four "lasers") of how our heroine might view their plausibility:
Option #1 -- Foundations Should Invest Big to Save Journalism! Who can blame Nicholas Lemann, dean of and Henry R. Luce Professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, for offering this option to a roomful of funders? Lemann described newsgathering as an expensive, ongoing function, and confirmed the obvious: foundations usually prefer project-based support. But since Lemann is a creative guy, he suggested that "covering the city of Baltimore forever" could be the project.
(1 Laser) Z-Philanthra isn't the only one who has been around long enough to know that massive, multiyear general operating support grants aren't going to happen in this economy -- or any other. (And altering that reality surely is a job for another superhero!)
Option #2 -- Switch the Bottom Line! If owners can't make massive profits from newspapers anymore, how about promoting "savvy restructuring and philanthropic capital that can recreate a different kind of newspaper, one that truly serves the public good"? That was the approach offered by Vince Stehle, program officer at the Surdna Foundation, in a Chronicle of Philanthropy piece, "It's Time for Newspapers to Become Nonprofit Organizations." Stehle pointed to the St. Petersburg Times and the London-based Guardian, both nonprofits, to demonstrate the viability of this approach.
(3 Lasers) As Vince knows, and the Nonprofit Fund's Clara Miller sagely noted, "nonprofit status is not a business plan." That's why Z-Philanthra could wield her dollars and charm (in that order) to pool philanthropic capital and collaboratively advance savvy restructuring. It won't work for every newspaper, but it certainly makes good sense in key markets.
Option #3 -- Government Should Pay! Victor Pickard, senior research fellow at the media reform organization Free Press, described a "national journalism strategy" that endorses the idea of alternative operating structures such as nonprofits and L3Cs. Other short-term components of the strategy include tax incentives for failing newspapers to divest their holdings to owners committed to public service, and a call to fold a journalism jobs program into the AmeriCorps program. Long-term strategies mentioned by Pickard include the establishment of a government-funded R&D pool and support for a substantially expanded public media system.
(3 Lasers) The Free Press report offers a credible menu of "pick and choose" options for even the most project-oriented foundations, but each would also require intensive advocacy -- another tactic foundations are usually reticent to support. That doesn't make several of the solutions Victor provided any less right-on.
Option #4 -- Let the Lab Rats Run Free! While most foundation presidents only attend panel discussions to be on the panel, Alberto Ibargüen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, actually attended as a participant! In that role, he described the Knight News Challenge, a competition designed to identify technologies and digital platforms that bring news and information to communities in new ways. Also on the panel was the Berks County (PA) Community Foundation's Heidi Williamson, who described how Knight support, coupled with a major bequest, is advancing a Web-based community "hub" in the region that will include in-depth reports on key quality-of-life issues by independent investigative reporters, video uploads from "citizen" journalists, and live community-focused cable tv shows.
(4+ Lasers) Knight is advancing a crowdsourcing (I call it "philanthrosourcing") approach that encourages a thousand innovative flowers to bloom. The approach is supported by an online "garage" Knight has set up to connect fifty "coaches" (past Knight News Challenge jurors and winners) with innovative thinkers developing new ideas and models designed to move journalism into the twenty-first century. In other words, out of the ivory tower and into the nooks and crannies where American ingenuity lives and flourishes. I do believe our heroine is ready for her first kiss!
-- Susan Herr