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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Bill Baker: Is there a nonprofit future for American journalism?

William F. Baker, the longtime executive at New York’s PBS stations, is temporarily here at Harvard as a senior research Fellow at the Kennedy School’s the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. Not long ago, he led a discussion whose title was “The Future of Journalism,” but which — like a lot of those talks these days — spent a lot of time on the industry’s current problems. Here’s a four-minute highlight reel, followed by some notes about the proceedings:

Baker spent 20 years as the CEO of the Educational Broadcasting Corporation, which is the licensee Thirteen/WNET and WLIW21 in New York. Baker is spending part of his time at Hauser compiling a comprehensive list of the American not-for-profit journalistic organizations. But he noted that the amount of such money is “pathetically small” compared to the amount of funding that goes to other broadcasters like BBC or Japan’s NHK.

Baker said funding for future media organizations could come from a combination of sources, including donations, grants and the audience. He mentioned a discussion at the Columbia Business School that proposed an idea he likes: setting up a micropayment system like the one used by Skype. If The New York Times charged 10 cents per story view, Baker said, “well, today I probably looked at The Times on my Blackberry probably ten times, so that would have been a buck.” The idea is that at prices that are nearly unnoticeable, the audience might find content worth paying.

Finding organizations or individuals who would want to donate large sums of money to journalistic enterprises won’t be easy, Baker said. As Chris Stone, Hauser’s faculty director, put it: “You’d have to do two things: You’d have to appeal to people who fund, and then you have to do good work.”

Some other perspectives:

— A few people wondered what will happen if traditional news organizations fail and search engines and portals are left without news to run. Baker: “The big companies are like Google and Yahoo, and their goal is not to be in journalism, but to reaggregate material…Maybe they should be in journalism. Maybe the next big journalistic organization will be Google…and they’ll set up their own reporting systems.”

— “Will journalistic organizations return to the community?” Baker wondered. He pointed to an older model of ownership in which a wealthy citizen owned the local newspaper as a “thing of honor to own an institution like that…whether it’s profitable or not.”

— Can news organizations monetize in other ways, perhaps branching out to other products? Stone worried that “cross subsidizing is hard because you combine different lines of work and you can’t do all of them well.”

— Why are print newspapers continuing to flourish in Canada and Europe while declining in the United States? “The internet is just as profound and as wide-ranging in Europe,” Baker said, “and in some places more so, and their newspapers haven’t hit the same wall…is this particularly an American phenomenon?”

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  • Melissa Cornick

    Did the founding fathers intend that Freedom of the Press was to be as profit driven as it is today? Did they intend that our very first amendment was to serve corporate masters and not the community?

    Perhaps the entire system has so grown awry that it will take a village to make journalism rise to respect again. First citizens need to learn to distinguish between “the news” which has so disappointed them and the true journalists who are caught between that rejection, and being forced to cover or become “the cult of celebrity” in contrast to the plight of ordinary citizens. Second, those citizens should include those financial benefactors who have an interest in this supporting this threatened profession. We are all in this together.

    This two part video is intended to test the combined efforts of citizen and professional journalism and is the first to give voice to regular people as part of an ongoing project about how quality of life declined for voters in Ohio.

    Journalism will recover when celebrity gets out of the way of real people, and when the ethics of journalism are recognized by ordinary people.

    The Founding Fathers studied 1500 works for 10 years to develop the Constitution. Could they have been so wrong that the role of journalism is the responsibility of citizens and not that of a privileged profession? Will we journalists become the dedicated and active citizens that the Founding Fathers wanted and can we join together to prevent this awful demise?

  • Francis Ward

    I’m thrilled that someone is researching the idea of funding journalism under the ownership and control of a non- profit organization dedicated to public service rather than profits and ratings. I believe this is the long – term future of public-service journalism (as opposed to celebrity entertainment journalism) that serves the basic needs of citizens in a democracy. I would like to be part of any future discussion of this process.

    Francis Ward, Newhouse School of Public Communications
    Syracuse University

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  • Roy Pearson

    Indeed, not-for-profit news media. Public news media as we know it tries to be everything to everybody,theoretically ??!! How would “we’ not end-up with a blizzard “informational” sources with tight agendas based commercial style marketing? This just sounds like another scheme to practice public control to me. And how much would the Government then be asked to kick-in from the tax payers?

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