These are tough times for nonprofit institutions. So on Saturday I go to the art museum, and what do I find? Every fourth painting on the wall has been replaced by a large poster advertising cosmetics.
Worried, I go to the symphony. After each movement, a giant screen rolls down above the orchestra, showing a two-minute video for a car dealership.
Then I hear that the soup kitchen makes clients listen to cigarette promos before dishing up their meals-and that hospital rooms are adorned with pictures of smiling staff from the nearby pharmacy.
But the kicker comes at church, where the sermon is interrupted by a beer distributor and a casino operator, both invited to the pulpit to push their products.
What's up? Well, hey, these nonprofit institutions have audiences but no funds. Advertisers have funds but no audiences. Fair trade, right?
This little vignette, of course, is pure fiction, straight from the theater of the absurd. But the absurdity has a point: When institutions are vital to society, we support them through the generosity of donors. We could fund them through in-your-face commercial advertising, but we don't.
Which brings us to newspapers. They appear to be evaporating before our very eyes. Why? Not for lack of excellent journalists, a need for news, or public interest in serious reporting. No, what plagues newspapers is simply their financial model. They've always been supported by advertising. Those dollars now have migrated to other media, much of it Web-based.
So we have a choice: We can abandon newspapers, or we can understand that-like art museums, symphonies, soup kitchens, hospitals, and churches-newspapers are so central to the public interest that they deserve to be recreated as nonprofits and operated for the public good.
In recent months, this idea has gained currency in The New York Times, The New Yorker, National Public Radio, and other places. Several nonprofit ventures already are in place, like ProPublica, an investigative reporting service, and MinnPost.com, a Web-based newspaper out of Minneapolis. The concept has been floated even in the Senate by Maryland Democrat Benjamin Cardin, whose Newspaper Revitalization Act would let newspapers operate as nonprofits for educational purposes.
Beneath this conversation lie three essentially moral questions:
Are newspapers truly a public benefit? Thomas Jefferson thought so. "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government," he wrote, "I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." His point: Democracy is inconceivable without an informed citizenry, and government needs the probing edge of in-depth reporting to keep it honest. But investigative journalism requires the capacity to run extended stories-not only to provide the details of the case, but to ensure the balance of views. Nothing yet has replaced newspapers in that capacity.
If Jefferson lived today, wouldn't he praise broadcast, cable, and Web-based news? Don't be too certain. There's a spatial serendipity to a newspaper that catches your eye with stories you never intended to read, educating you into interests you didn't know you had. That may seem a frivolous point, but much of modern entrepreneurial success is based on a creativity that looks at one thing and sees another, and that puts A together with B in wholly new ways. Web readers, it appears, don't engage in much serendipity. Too often they say, "I'm interested in A," and then link directly to it. TV and radio audiences may be interested in B-though, in those sequential media, they sometimes have to plow helplessly through more coverage of A than they need. That leaves newspapers, surprisingly, as perhaps the most interactive news medium of all. Unlike radio and TV, they let readers, second by second, decide whether to turn the page and move on. And unlike the Web, they remind us that the simple act of turning a page can be an act of delicious randomness, with no idea what will turn up. Never mind that a Web browser, commanded to turn the page, typically grinds on for several attention-sapping seconds before giving you the sequel. The real problem is that it also eliminates surprise: If you don't tell it exactly what to look for, no page gets turned.
Could you run a news operation without depending on ads?Evidently you can: Both the BBC and National Public Radio are highly respected and essentially commercial-free. And would newspapers be better as nonprofits? Perhaps. While the best papers maintain firewalls between the news and advertising functions, there always lurks the suspicion that editors might spike an exposé of a top advertiser while running a similar story about a competing company. Newspapers funded by broad-based contributions from a community of donors might face less suspicion.
Now, I admit there are caveats: Web-based news is in enormous and creative flux, nobody's figured out how to charge for it, and new formats may resolve issues of spatial serendipity. But the advent of nonprofit newspapers neatly addresses these three ethical concerns. They would encourage a citizenry to accept its moral responsibility to stay informed and demand integrity-and to pay a modest price for that privilege. Such papers would mitigate the unwitting bigotry that occurs when readers seek only the news they want rather than the news they need-while promoting entrepreneurial creativity along the way. And such papers would enhance objectivity and lessen conflicts of interest in newsrooms.
What's so absurd about that?