At first I thought this one was pretty unlikely, but I'm not so sure anymore.
The simple reality is that providing a quality community newspaper is expensive. Profits are still possible, of course, but they're never going to roll in at the astronomical rate that publishers of yore routinely counted on.
But if a newspaper didn't have to make money? What if it only had to break even or perhaps a bit better? Could it be that a newspaper whose sole mission was to provide the news to the community could thrive?
I think so.
A nonprofit newspaper, or a paper owned by a nonprofit, would be liberated from the necessity of maximizing income. It couldn't lose money, of course, because nonprofits are not quite the same as no-profits. They die if they run short of cash just like any other business entity.
But a paper run as a community service by a nonprofit would have a few advantages that a for profit paper doesn't have.
For one, it can seek donations, not just subscriptions and advertising money, just like National Public Radio or Connecticut Public Television is always doing. I understand most people wouldn't give, but some would, especially if it was tax deductible, effectively making the government an unobtrusive partner in the process.
It could perhaps seek sponsors to help defray the cost of reporting iniatives, just the way companies help NPR tackle extra environmental journalism or business coverage.
A nonprofit paper would also have an advantage. It wouldn't need to pay taxes, except payroll-type charges. That's one big expense that a regular paper has to fork over, but a nonprofit doesn't, effectively making it a lot easier to break even.
People would come, perhaps, to see a nonprofit paper that existed only to serve the community as a unique resource in a way that they probably couldn't imagine with a daily owned by some distant and distracted corporation. It would a part of the community far more directly than any traditional business can be, since all of them, even those run by the most generous people, exist in the end to make money.
A nonprofit could also collect grants from the government that a regular old newspaper never could, because of the special role as a public service that all nonprofits carry. There might be some cash to help at least with getting it off the ground, which might be all it takes.
I haven't thought it all through yet, but it does strike me as more than a pipe dream. Why not make a Bristol daily -- or near daily -- a public service institution with a simple mission: to provide the news people need?
Anybody out there listening? Anybody with a hankering to prove that journalism in America doesn't have to die? To show that a new model might carry us into a brighter future?
I know, as we all do, that someday we'll do all of this electronically, that everything will be online in some way, just like Jackie and I did with The Tattoo. But a nonprofit model can allow that transition to happen more smoothly and seamlessly over the course of time.
I'm not sure it can work in any community, but I am sure it would work in Bristol. This town has a diverse population -- as the newly approved Buddhist temple surely shows -- and a history of innovation, as everything from the clock industry to ESPN reinforces. It can lead the way to a new journalism for this century.
Update on Saturday afternoon:
There are nonprofit news organizations around already, including the Associated Press itself.
Others include The Christian Science Monitor, the BBC, The Day in New London, The Guardian in England, the St. Petersburg Times and Harper's magazine.
So it can be done successfully.
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Contact Steve Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org