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Opinion | Your Newspaper’s Not Making Money? Try Going Non-Profit, and It Probably Still Won’t

If you had predicted in 1970, the year of NPR’s founding, that someday a public radio station would acquire a big city daily, you would have been told to type your weird prophecy up and sell it to Amazing Stories magazine. But just such a deal went down in Chicago last week, where Chicago Public Media, the proprietors of NPR-affiliate WBEZ, announced that it would take on the foundering Chicago Sun-Times as a nonprofit subsidiary.

This isn’t the first time a public broadcaster has absorbed a commercial media property. In 2018, assisted by unnamed philanthropists, public radio stations in New York, Southern California and Washington, D.C., revived some of the Gothamist network’s (Gothamist, DCist, LAist, etc.) shuttered online news properties. In 2019, public stations in Philadelphia and Denver bought local online news sites owned by Spirited Media. But never before the WBEZ deal had a public station swallowed such a storied legacy media property.

Public radio stations aren’t the only news properties running as nonprofits. Other notables include the Texas Tribune, Pro Publica, VTDigger, States Newsroom, Report for America, Voice of San Diego, the MinnPost, all of which have reaped journalistic glory online and elsewhere. A billionaire philanthropist has moved to fill the news gaps left by the tattered Baltimore Sun by launching his nonprofit Baltimore Banner. Nor is the Sun-Times the first big daily to go nonprofit — the Salt Lake Tribune took that route in 2019.

The significant thing about the WBEZ deal is that it could set an example to other broke dailies that think partnering with a public media property will help them find a safe financial place in the nonprofit harbor. How might shifting newspapers from for-profit to nonprofit change our media diet? And is it a foregone conclusion that the nonprofit editors and publishers will be better news stewards than for-profit ones they replace? Ultimately, not every daily newspaper can be saved, and some might not be worth saving, even if fundraisers find the cash. For-profit newspapers have traditionally been as much as entertainment vehicles as news vehicles. As the Chicago Sun-Times switch to nonprofit arrives, it’s hard to imagine that its owners will want to use tax-exempt donations to fund newspaper comics, astrology columns, sports coverage, advice columns, crosswords and puzzles, recipes and other divertissements with tax-exempt donations. It’s easy to imagine Chicago Public Media bailing out the Sun-Times but eventually abolishing much of what makes it recognizable as a big city daily.

For much of America’s history, news entrepreneurs entered the market expecting to make money. But in recent decades, profits have become elusive for print publishers whose advertisers have defected to Google, Facebook and other web companies as readers have changed their news consumption habits. Caught between the web and a hard place, the attraction some publishers feel for the nonprofit model comes as no surprise. Nonprofit status vanquishes the need to please stockholders with booming quarterly profits and rising share prices. It also makes most revenue — including advertising, donations and membership fees — tax-exempt as long as the nonprofit in question avoids overt commerciality. The only downside for a faltering for-profit outlet is that the law forbids nonprofits to endorse candidates or legislation. That matters less today than yesterday, when powerful players bought newspapers in their home towns precisely to drive the city’s politics from the editorial page. Few readers pay much attention to self-serving editorials anymore.

The Chicago marriage looks swell on paper, but don’t try to replicate this in your city unless you have a big cast of deep-pocketed philanthropists to tap. Chicago Public Media didn’t actually buy the Sun-Times, as a barbed report in the Sun-Times noted. The acquisition was more like a “dowry,” claimed one adviser on the deal, in which the Sun-Times’ primary owner has pledged an unknown sum to the new effort and the stinking rich Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, as well as the Pritzker Traubert Foundation, have also blessed it with funding. An argument could be made that the Sun-Times’ previous owners, which include Chicago businesspeople and labor organizations, were already running the money-losing paper as a philanthropic venture. The deal merely moves their money-losing investment into the nonprofit tax space where losses won’t be as severe.

Nor is it automatic that bringing the two entities under one roof would be a journalistic benefit. The newsrooms aren’t merging, according to news reports, although the two outlets vow they’ll be sharing news and resources with one another and that 40-50 new staffers will be added. But if sharing is so important, nothing was preventing them from sharing before. In fact, the two had already partnered on copy. It’s also obvious to any news consumer that they appeal to different audiences. The Sun-Times works the tabloid side of the street and WBEZ aligns itself with the liberalism of the traditional NPR audience. This is not to disparage either outlet, only to illustrate their incompatibilities and to register that the acquisition seems to be more about preserving the declining Sun-Times, a worthy goal, than capturing journalistic synergies. But perhaps the deal isn’t a complete waste. You could argue that it’s better for the Sun-Times to survive as a nonprofit than to be captured and husked by the notorious Alden Global Capital, which owns about 200 papers, including the competing Chicago Tribune.

Given that making big media, nonprofit or otherwise, requires big money, most successful nonprofit news outlets owe their beginnings to the extremely wealthy. ProPublica had Herbert and Marion Sandler, the Texas Tribune had John Thornton, the Baltimore Banner has Stewart W. Bainum Jr. The Sun-Times, founded as a for-profit newspaper in the 1940s by department store magnate Marshall Field III, eventually became the plaything of Rupert Murdoch and has been sold repeatedly to moneyed interests in the interim. That state of play isn’t really changing. As a Chicago Tribune editorial observed this week, the new Sun-Times board includes a MacArthur Foundation staffer. WBEZ’s board includes Bryan Traubert, the chair of the Traubert Pritzker board, husband of former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, and brother-in-law of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, both of the Pritzker family fortune. The rich always say they’ll never try to influence the nonprofit journalism they fund, but that’s laughable. Like for-profit operators, they want to see the news reported in their image. At least when rich people directly owned and operated news outlets they were more upfront about it. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Tim Keck, the founder of the Stranger, Seattle’s alt-weekly, applauds the rescue of failing newspapers in general, but says it might not always result in better journalism.

“Instead of pubs focusing on audiences to get advertisers, they will be focusing on pitch decks to get funding and not angering their audience, or worse, doing just what the audience thinks it wants,” Keck says. “NPR from time-to-time does good stuff but it’s rarely surprising, exciting or dangerous. It will certainly accelerate the move to Patreon and Substack for independent-minded journalists and true-believers with a taste for mischief, blood or stardom.”

Jim Brady of Spirited Media, who sold two of his online properties to public radio stations and now works on the Knight Foundation’s journalism initiatives, finds the WBEZ deal as part of a new watershed. “The new reality is that the goal of getting into the journalism business isn’t to make big profits; it’s to make a big difference,” says Brady. This worldview, widely trafficked within the nonprofit axis, views collaboration among news outlets as typified by the WBEZ-Sun-Times hook up as a natural successor to yesterday’s wicked competition.

Only a fool still living in 1970 would say that a public radio station could never-ever successfully absorb a daily newspaper. The fate of the Sun-Times, which has depended for so long on capitalists bent on turning a profit and readers and advertisers willing to foot the bill, now falls to philanthropists, foundations, fundraisers, taxpayers and dues-paying members who put WBEZ on the steady. Will the radio station’s journalistic culture smother the newspaper’s culture or will a new hybrid culture emerge? Will the tottering newspaper drag the successful radio station down? As a novel journalistic experiment, we have no previous data upon which to base a prediction. We can only let the experiment run. No matter how it turns out, it will be an amazing story.

******

Public radio, as you might gather, makes my skin itch. But I do love me some David Folkenflik. Send your public radio Valentines to [email protected]. My email alerts believe “in a more just, verdant and peaceful world.” My Twitter feed doesn’t understand that Pacifica Radio isn’t the same as NPR. My RSS feed listens to AM radio only.

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