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Jan. 22, 2010, 12:01 p.m.

A new convert to nonprofit journalism out west?

The start-up Bay Area News Project announced its new leadership team yesterday, as reported by the New York Times and paidContent, and it’s unfortunate that the most eye-catching bit of the news was CEO Lisa Frazier’s $400,000 salary. Yes, that’s a lot of money, and, like the news about Paul Steiger getting $570,000 to run ProPublica, it invites questions about what are appropriate salaries for a nonprofit.

But let’s set those aside for now, and let’s appreciate the news about the hiring of NewWest.net founder Jonathan Weber as editor-in-chief of BANP.

A year ago, Weber authored a thoughtful and well-argued, if withering, critique of the nonprofit model as a solution to the financial problems plaguing newspapers and journalism more generally.

Weber’s essay, entitled “The Trouble with Nonprofit Journalism,” dismisses the nonprofit model as an ill-suited to define what is newsworthy and unlikely to be sustainable. Here’s a passage:

[W]hen I started NewWest.Net in 2005 I considered going the non-profit route, but decided against it for what I still think are good reasons. I had to raise investment capital, which was arduous and way, way more time-consuming than I anticipated, but with luck I won’t have to do it again. Even more importantly, we are held to the brutal discipline of the market, which is very unpleasant a lot of the time but I think is ultimately a healthy thing. For the core problem that non-profit journalism will never be able to solve properly is deciding what is worthy. In a business, the customers ultimately decide what is worthy, for better and for worse. Managers at good companies can think for the long term and the greater good — and in fact there is clearly a market for thoughtful journalism — but as the VCs like to say, eventually the dogs have to eat the dog food. It keeps you honest. In a non-profit, either the board or the employees decide what is worthy — and why them?

Think Weber included the essay when he sent his resume to BANP founder Warren Hellman? Me, neither.

But this is not the place or time for told-you-so’s or questions about how much Weber’s being paid to run BANP. Rather, I take Weber’s conversion as validation of the nonprofit model as a place “to keep the spirit and tradition of socially responsible journalism alive,” as University of North Carolina professor Philip Meyer said in 2004.

In his own way, Weber said as much in the paidContent article when asked how a nonprofit differs from his work at NewWest:

In terms of profit versus non-profit, I’ve certainly been an advocate of the for-profit model. I do think there are for-profit models that work, but at the same time, the reality these days is that investment capital is not going into for-profit companies where the primary use of proceeds of that capital is to pay journalists. For whatever reasons, investors have not seen that as a big opportunity to date. There may be a few exceptions in narrow niches but certainly for general news there’s been very little investment of that type.

But I think there’s more to it than where the capital is flowing.

Since Weber wrote his essay just a year ago, the nonprofit model in journalism has undergone a full generation of transformation and growth. It used to be that nonprofits were oddities and one-offs, however successful financially or journalistically. ProPublica was really the only grand experiment anybody could name. But now, there are any number of start-ups that are using nonprofit status and the IRS 501(c)3 tax designation as a tool to create new business models that can sustain socially responsible journalism. In addition to BANP, we now have examples in Texas Tribune and the Chicago News Cooperative. And some of the early, community-based experiments such as MinnPost and Voice of San Diego seem to have held their own through the downturn in the economy while finding new ways to attract readers and donors.

It is said that converts become evangelists. I’m looking forward to seeing what Weber will do at BANP — and what role he will play within the nonprofit sector. As a co-founder of the now-defunct magazine The Industry Standard, Weber has a distinguished track record as an innovator, and I think he’ll find his new environs will be a hospitable place for his creativity.

Welcome aboard, Jonathan.

POSTED     Jan. 22, 2010, 12:01 p.m.
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