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Toward a symphony model for local news

“You can see the glimmers of a sustainable model for nonprofit local news — a combination of ongoing revenue (ads and circulation, along with events or membership fees), combined with ongoing philanthropic support and, over time, an endowment to fill in the gaps.”

It’s been a cruel decade for local news in the U.S., particularly for newspapers.

But in a few communities, there has been a bright spot, as financial saviors have rescued newsrooms beset by cascading rounds of newsroom layoffs and coverage cutbacks.

John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, bought the Globe in 2013 for about $70 million (more than a 90% discount from what The New York Times Co. paid 20 years earlier). Glen Taylor bought the Minneapolis Star Tribune for around $100 million in 2014. And of course there’s Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who dug behind his couch cushions for the $250 million to purchase the Washington Post.

All three of those papers are likely in far better shape today than they would’ve been without their new owners. But not every community has a Bezos-in-waiting. Nor would every news organization benefit from one. After all, a mercurial sole owner can impose his or her whims with much less disclosure than a public corporation like Gannettor McClatchy.

And then there’s the inheritance problem. As Nelson Poynter explainedwhen he bequeathed his St. Petersburg Times to his non-profit organization rather than his family, “I’ve never met my great-grandchildren, and I might not like them.”

So if the commercial market isn’t going to support local media, and if private owners aren’t the answer, what’s going to take their place? I’d suggest looking at symphony orchestras, and I’m going to predict — with fingers achingly crossed — that some cities are going to adopt this non-profit, community-based model to rescue existing journalism outlets, or to create new ones freed of legacy cost structures.

There are a lot of similarities. Symphonies appeal to elite, wealthy patrons, but the best ones spread their good deeds in more diverse parts of their community. Symphonies depend on ticket sales and a few retail sales, but they can’t survive without philanthropy.

Take the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, which is wonderfully transparent and current about its finances. Last fiscal year, the orchestra spent around $30 million — more than two-thirds of that on concerts and other programming, and the rest on fundraising, marketing and administrative expenses.

And guess what they brought in? Around $30 million — a true non-profit. That revenue came roughly equally from three sources: contributions, endowment income (it helps to have over $200 million in your investment account!) and ticket and tour sales.

St. Louis’ symphony dates back to 1880, so it has had nearly 140 years to establish its reputation and build its endowment. But if you look at its revenue mix, you can see the glimmers of a sustainable model for nonprofit local news — a combination of ongoing revenue (ads and circulation, along with events or membership fees), combined with ongoing philanthropic support and, over time, an endowment to fill in the gaps.

This prediction requires a lot — in particular, a community-minded group who see as much value in supporting a powerful journalism watchdog as in a local symphony or art museum. It also raises the risk that reporters might sometimes shy from stories that might offend donors. That’s a possibility, of course, but not much more so than the danger that always lurked in angering advertisers. And I’d argue that it’s far less risky than depending upon the goodwill of a single owner — particularly one whose great-grandchildren the journalists might someday not like very much.

Bill Grueskin is a professor at Columbia Journalism School.

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