The Future of News

Friday, May 8, 2009

By Vincent Stehle
Chair of the Board of Directors, Philanthropy New York

Program Director for Nonprofit Sector Support, Surdna Foundation

The future is bleak for daily newspapers. The combination of a severe economic downturn along with growing competition from Google and Craigslist and other Internet-based information services is undermining the health of an industry that has operated in roughly the same way for centuries. Every week brings news of another major daily newspaper in deep financial trouble; most recently the threat from the New York Times Company that it would be forced to shut the venerableBoston Globe if it did not receive concessions from the paper’s unions.

Solutions to the crisis of journalism are elusive, with some observers urging publishers to stop giving their content away for free on the Internet, while others are calling for new forms of public or philanthropic subsidy for the news business. And now there is a growing interest in the possibility that daily newspapers can be operated as nonprofit media enterprises, much like public radio or television stations, with a combination of earned and contributed income that might make them more sustainable in the uncertain future. It would be a radical shift for an industry that has operated almost exclusively as a commercial form. Philanthropy New York will examine these issues in a members briefing that will feature a panel of esteemed journalists and experts on media policy.

The concern about the health of the news business goes beyond the financial well-being of the affected companies and their employees. Journalism is a crucial function in a democracy, providing accountability and transparency for powerful forces that have a tendency toward corruption without scrutiny. Whatever the solution, it’s urgent that we come up with some way of generating and delivering serious journalism, whether it’s in a for-profit or nonprofit format, whether it’s delivered on newsprint or digital distribution. The day we print the obituary for American journalism is the same day they publish the death notice for our democracy.

Vincent Stehle is the Program Director for Nonprofit Sector Support at the Surdna Foundation, a family foundation based in New York City with more than $700 million in assets. Mr. Stehle is Chair of the Board of Directors of Philanthropy New York and also serves on the Board of Directors of Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media. In addition, he is a member of the advisory board for the Center for Effective Philanthropy. Before joining Surdna, Mr. Stehle worked for ten years as a reporter for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where he covered fundraising and management issues for the nonprofit sector. A piece by Mr. Stehle on this topic recently appeared in the Chronicle (login required).

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