Tuned In

NYT = NPR? Can a Pay Paper Seek Foundation Money?

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My column in TIME this week is about the various plans media outlets are considering to float their operations as their old business model is suffering. On the heels of this comes a report that the New York Times is considering—but only considering—getting foundations to support its reporting, as public broadcasting does. In an interview with Poynter, assistant managing editor James Whitney says, “We’ve begun to ask ourselves whether it would be possible to get the kind of support that NPR does from foundations for its journalism.”

Possible? I guess. A good idea? Maybe, but I suspect not for the New York Times, considering that it’s still a for-profit business seeing to charge people for its work. 

If I had to guess what the future is for funding journalism, I’d guess it’s some broad combination of many things being tried now: some sponsorship, some nonprofit funding, some hybrid businesses and so on. And I don’t have any objection to news organizations of any kind asking for contributions or public donations, as long as they disclose it and as long as people are willing to give. 

But I have to wonder, just practically, if taking foundation support (even limited support, say, aimed at costly investigations) wouldn’t undermine the other approach the Times is reported to be considering: namely, looking at ways to get people to pay for online content. People resist paying out of pocket for online content anyway. Doesn’t looking for handouts—while continuing to run a business, as a business—just give people one more reason not to pay? (Either on the grounds that [1] some philanthropist will foot the bill instead or [2] any paper that’s paying shareholders yet taking handouts doesn’t need, or doesn’t deserve, additional payment.) 

My gut says that nonprofit support, or for-profit charging, might work for any given organization, but that both at once will work at cross-purposes. But my gut has never run a newspaper, so I don’t blame the NYT for considering all options.

And as I’ve been saying, it’s not a matter of what should work, but a matter of what will work. I’m just not sure that this idea will.