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Should community newspapers consider going nonprofit?

I think it’s clear that non-profit options are going to be part of at least the short-term future of community media (I’d be suspicious of anyone who purports to predict the long-term future). We have seen a recent proliferation of journalism supported by philanthropy and/or public donations — mostly, if not entirely, on a metro or state or national basis in projects such as MinnPost, the St. Louis Beacon, Texas Tribune and ProPublica.

A couple of community-focused operations that I know of are Champaign News-Gazette, owned by the Marajen Stevick Foundation, and the Anniston Star, which the Ayers family is turning over to a trust, affiliated with the University of Alabama, arrangements similar to the Poynter-St. Petersburg Times relationship. But the Star and News-Gazette are really mid-sized papers, smaller than the metros, but still much bigger than small dailies and weeklies.

I do expect someone to try a non-profit approach (or perhaps an L3C, low-profit, limited liability company) in a smaller community. Or perhaps some people are already doing it and I don’t know about it because the bigger ones get more attention.

One of the situations you always need to address in a non-profit journalism operation is where does the money come from. In a smaller community, you might be more likely to have the funding come from a powerful local person or organization, which will raise questions (perception, if not reality) about how independent and credible the new organization will be in covering that person or organization’s other community involvements. However, that’s not all that different from the questions that for-profit publishers have always faced in how their news organizations cover their other business interests and community activities.

I do hope some people try non-profit models at the community level. I think we need a wide range of experimentation to find the best models to support a prosperous future. But I do agree with my former boss at the American Press Institute, Drew Davis, who often said (quoting a former boss himself, as I recall) that the best guarantee of a free press is a profitable press.

I favor pursuit of new revenue streams, such as I have described in my Complete Community Connection and Mobile-First Strategy blog posts. I think those are potential paths to a profitable future and I know that other people are pursuing other paths to a profitable future. I think the future of journalism at all levels, including the community level, is a future of multiple models. And I believe non-profit models are part of that future. I look forward to learning from a Texas community news organization that gives it a try.