NPR logo

A Nonprofit Panacea For Newspapers?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Nonprofit Panacea For Newspapers?


A Nonprofit Panacea For Newspapers?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


As the business model for newspapers cracks apart, there are those who are lamenting, and those who are inventing. Some journalists now say the industry should forget about making a profit altogether, and find new ways to support the news. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: From his modest office at the southern tip of Manhattan, Paul Steiger sees tourists swarm a famous statue 23 floors below.

Mr. PAUL STEIGER (Editor-in-chief, ProPublica): The bull, the symbol of Wall Street in its better days, but I think that there may be a sense of enhanced potency and peregrinity.

FOLKENFLIK: It's a symbol of American capitalism, a system which wasn't working for a lot of American newspapers even before the economy collapsed. For years, Steiger was the top news editor at the Wall Street Journal, but he's now editor-in-chief of ProPublica, a year-old, investigative-reporting outfit that is not-for-profit - a fact, he says, that changes everything.

Mr. STEIGER: I don't even have to think about revenue. I don't have to think about circulation. I don't have to think about advertising.

FOLKENFLIK: A phenomenally wealthy couple, Herb and Marion Sandler, asked him how to help save journalism, ProPublica was his answer.

Mr. STEIGER: What we want to do is shine a light on abuses of power and failure to uphold the public interest, and make that light hot enough and persistent enough so that positive steps are taken by the public to change them.

FOLKENFLIK: With $10 million a year, primarily from the Sandlers, Steiger and his colleagues created a newsroom with two dozen journalists, including Pulitzer winners from the Los Angeles Times and a foreign correspondent from the Washington Post. Their stories are appearing in news outlets big and small, on CBS's 60 Minutes.

(Soundbite of 60 Minutes)

Unidentified Man #1: Some of it has supported terrorism and denied the Holocaust.

FOLKENFLIK: And on public radio stations.

(Soundbite of WNYC radio)

Unidentified Man #2: WNYC and ProPublica found Brad Field at his agency unable to answer many questions.

FOLKENFLIK: ProPublica charges nothing for its stories. It demands only full credit, and the promise its pieces will run in full. They have graced the pages and Web sites of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, smaller papers from Albany to San Diego, and small, local sites, too. ProPublica is also collaborating with NPR. Jeff Fager is the executive producer of "60 Minutes." He says ProPublica is filling a real need.

Mr. JEFF FAGER (Executive Producer, 60 Minutes): I mean, there's a crisis in this country involving investigative reporting. With newspapers struggling and you cut back on your more expensive stories, and that's what happens when you're investigating, doing real investigative reporting. It's expensive.

FOLKENFLIK: While "60 Minutes" might not need the help, others sure do. Journalists have urged philanthropists in Los Angeles, Boston and Baltimore to take over struggling local dailies there. The former managing editor of the Washington Post just called for a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett to endow the Post's operations with a single check. But patrons can arrive with their own complications. The Sandlers, ProPublica's financial angels, have drawn some fire for their former bank's lending practices. Editors there say they have been promised, and received, no interference. Even so, Peter Osnos says this model can't be widely mimicked.

Mr. PETER OSNOS (Book Publisher): The problem with nonprofit is that very often it is equated with charity, that somebody's going to come along and hand you a check, and then everybody will live happily ever after. Well, that's not truly a good not-for-profit model.

FOLKENFLIK: Osnos is the founder of PublicAffairs Books, and he's a former foreign correspondent at the Washington Post. He says people should look instead…

Mr. OSNOS: …frankly at the public radio model, which is a nonprofit, publicly supported, and enormously successful on its own terms.

FOLKENFLIK: Osnos points to NPR's growth based on revenue from foundations, contributions from listeners, and corporate underwriting or ads.

MR. OSNOS: And it pays the way. It doesn't pay the way lavishly, but it doesn't need to.

FOLKENFLIK: Several news sites with lean staffs and a sharp local focus do follow that very model: the New Haven Independent, Voice of San Diego, and a Twin City site called the MinnPost. But that's not bulletproof, either. NPR and some local member stations have announced layoffs. And getting seed money from private foundations can be tough. Former Boston Globe foreign correspondent Charlie Sennott just launched a new outfit called Global Post to replace disappearing foreign coverage from big, regional papers. Sennott ultimately sought money from investors rather than foundations. He found that asking for grants required too much hand-holding.

Mr. CHARLIE SENNOTT (Global Post Editor): Call me impatient and even call me crass, but I wasn't willing to wait around for that happen. And I said, hey, these things are collapsing now.

FOLKENFLIK: Sennott's large network of reporters are given slender monthly stipends. But they also receive a small ownership stake in his for-profit company. That's his new model for news. Even ProPublica's Paul Steiger says the not-for-profit model probably isn't the cure for what ails the news business. But he says it might just be a much bigger part of what's next.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.