As the head of a journalism school, I have a strong, and obvious, interest in promoting the idea that people who decide to pursue careers as journalists are making a good choice — that it'll enable them both to serve a valuable social purpose and, no less important, to make a living.
Without a doubt, the news business is in upheaval — or, to be kind, transition — and many of the institutions that have made up its core are struggling.
But while some of the country's top news organizations are being sold off (most recently, the Washington Post and Boston Globe) and the legacy industry is perpetually scaling back, other media are emerging to meet the public's insatiable appetite for news, information and interaction.
The burning question is whether they stand any greater likelihood of success than their tottering predecessors.
One sector of great interest consists of nonprofit news media, which have sprung up over the past decade, especially since the 2008 financial crash sent advertising revenues plunging.
The glittering constellation of startup, nonprofit news sites range from local operations that use thinly qualified volunteers to cover neighborhood happenings to top-shelf news outfits — such as Manhattan-based Pro Publica and the Bay Area's Center for Investigative Reporting — which routinely win major accolades for high-impact stories of national scope.
Now, nonprofit journalism has long been a durable part of the media landscape, and media underwritten by religious groups (such as the Christian Science Monitor), political movements (the Nation), public giving (National Public Radio) or community organizations have been around for generations.
Nonprofits generally made their money from some combination of advertising, subscription sales and generosity from their patrons, and they survived in the quiet waters on the edge of the overwhelmingly profit-seeking, ad-supported mainstream. The model's appeal deepened as consumer advertising began to falter over the past decade, and the production of what had been considered basic news was imperiled.
Foundations and rich donors took interest, and entrepreneurial journalists, denied the jobs they otherwise would've commanded, lined up capitalization and got to work. Suddenly, nonprofits seemed not just plausible as a successor paradigm but unavoidable.
Yet a study released in June by the Pew Research Center that examined 172 nonprofit news organizations offered a picture of energetic striving that has yet to achieve durability and size. Most of the nonprofits were "small, with minimal staffs and modest budgets." More than three-quarters had five or fewer full-time employees, and just under half had gross revenues of under $500,000.
By comparison, even in their dotage, the country still had 1,386 daily newspapers as of 2011, and they had full-time editorial staffs averaging 28. Even though that average was down from 39 a decade earlier, it was still an order of magnitude greater than the staffing of the nonprofits.
Moreover, an impressive proportion of nonprofits had been unable to leave the funding nest. Three-quarters still were dependent on foundation money, which made up more than half the total revenue of most of those.
That suggests life in the nonprofit sector remains brutish and short, dominated by startups damp with startup money and thrown against the wall in hopes that if enough try, some will stick.
None seem to have figured out how to make money from the content they produce. Even Pro Publica, which to its credit is reducing its dependency on its founding patron, Herb Sandler, from 95 percent to what it hopes will be 30 percent of its total revenue, still depends largely on private largesse.