An Ink-Stained Wretch Laments

The Carrboro Citizen is shutting down its presses and its publisher, Robert Dickson, wonders aloud what the future holds for newspapers:

The problem is that professional journalism costs money, and that we have all gotten way too comfortable with getting our news for free. Journalists don’t make much money (just ask the Citizen staff), but they’ve still got to eat.

Newspapers have done this to themselves though, and pulling back from the brink is proving to be painful. The siren song of Internet advertising cash has not made up for the lost revenue from print editions. So, what do you know, newspapers across the land are deciding to charge for their online content. Gee, what a concept…

I’ve heard a neighbor tell me how easy it is to defeat the pay wall at The New York Times. The best $3.75 I spend every week is on that newspaper, and I can’t imagine a day without it. What’s our world going to be like when the Grey Lady goes down because readers won’t pay for content? Or The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post or The News & Observer?

The republic will be on the rocks, that’s what will happen. We can have all the instant information we want, but we have to be able to trust it to make reasonable decisions…

So what does this have to do with the demise of The Carrboro Citizen? My pondering has led me to the belief that one future of hyperlocal news outlets, at least in the style of The Citizen, is as nonprofit entities.

It’s likely too much to ask of small local businesses to provide sufficient advertising revenue to sustain the necessary news coverage for a community like ours. A locally owned and operated nonprofit, however, could supplement ad sales with reader support and maybe a few grants, and come up with a sustainable model for local long-form journalism.

Who knows how we'll get our news in the future? Last night the country suffered through the first of three Presidential debates scheduled for this election season, and many of us tracked it by monitoring Twitter or Facebook. Who could have predicted even fifteen years ago that we'd be getting real-time "news" in 140 characters or less on a smart phone?

But that's news in the most shallow of senses, and does not answer the question of how/where we'll get the lcoal in-depth stories that have traditionally been the province of newspapers. Quite frankly the issue isn't the delivery system – paper vs. digital – but the ability for the people producing the stories to make a living doing it. 

The idea of creating a non-profit to house a local news operation is a good one, and for at least one more reason than Mr. Dickson mentioned: a non-profit is not owned by any one person and answers to a board of directors. Unlike a publicly owned company it isn't driven by the need to meet quarterly profit projections, and unlike a privately owned company it doesn't have to meet an owner's financial expectations or needs. Sure there will be people who exert more control on the organization than others, but there are mechanisms built into a non-profit corporation's structure that help prevent it going off the rails and losing focus on its mission. In fact, maybe its most important aspect is that its core mission moves from creating profit for its owners to serving its community's information needs. 

A non-profit structure wouldn't be a panacea, but if the objective is to create an institution that serves a community's information needs then it's probably a better fit than just about any other at this point in time. There's nothing wrong with for-profit newspapers, but as Mr. Dickson points out their days may be numbered.

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