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Dec. 2, 2008, 11:06 a.m.

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?”

POSTED     Dec. 2, 2008, 11:06 a.m.
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