New books highlight nonprofit ecosystem

Oct. 13, 2011

The experimentation and energy occurring in the nonprofit journalism ecosystem are exciting international phenomena that are analyzed and described in detail in two new Oxford University Press books, to which I was asked to contribute chapters.

Roughly a year ago, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford held an unusual symposium on the “Charitable and Trust Ownership of News Organizations,” with experts from four countries in North America and Europe presenting fascinating insight (see Charles Lewis, “Visionaries sustain journalistic values with trusts,” Oct. 1, 2010). The Reuters Institute was created in 2006 as part of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford, to do scholarly and professional research about the news media and to operate the long-standing Thomson Reuters Fellowship program and also host academic research fellows.


In September 2010, following the symposium, we all were asked to contribute chapters expanding on our remarks, and a lively conversation among all of the participants was recorded, all of which is contained in the Institute’s new book, Is There a Better Structure for News Providers? It is edited by David A. L. Levy and Robert G. Picard, the Reuters Institute’s director and director of research, respectively. The 138-page book is for sale online from the University of Oxford, and the executive summary can be downloaded free.

Levy and Picard write that “Charitable ownership structures and trust arrangements are frequently advocated but rarely studied in any detail within and beyond a single country. This study attempts to redress that gap and prompt further debate about the potential role of charitable and trust ownership in this period of painful transition for many news providers.”

I wrote a chapter entitled, “Non-profit Journalism Entrepreneurialism in the United States,” which the Reuters Institute has kindly allowed the Investigative Reporting Workshop to post the article (PDF). In it I briefly review the evolution of nonprofit journalism in the U.S., beginning with the creation of the Associated Press in 1846, and also describe the recent carnage in commercial journalism with trenchant, reflective observations by the legendary editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer in its Pulitzer-laden, financially robust halcyon days, Gene Roberts, whom I interviewed a few years ago. Much of the chapter describes how the Center for Public Integrity came to be and how it has evolved; it is the only “startup” nonprofit described in detail in the book. Most of the other “trust ownership” examples in the book come from long-established, much larger news organizations — The Guardian in England, owned by the Scott Trust; Ouest-France, the largest-circulation daily newspaper in France, owned by Groupe Ouest-France, which is 95 percent owned by the Société d’Investissements et de Participations, SIPA; The Toronto Star in Canada, owned by Torstar Corporation, which is controlled by the Torstar Voting Trust; and The St. Petersburg Times, owned by the Poynter Institute.

Levy, formerly a journalist and top executive at the BBC (Controller, Public Policy, until 2007), and Picard, who has taught on three continents about media economics and is the author of 25 books, conclude that overall: “There are strong grounds for giving more consideration than has been the case to date, to these alternative forms of ownership, as one part of a portfolio of responses to the current travails of many parts of the news industry. When structured and staffed correctly alternative structures can:

• help keep news organizations focused on the public interest aspects of accountability journalism both at the national and local level,

• avoid the short-term pressures of the financial markets, which led some publically quoted news organizations to take on excessive levels of debt in recent years, and

• combine preserving the intent of their founders with the nimbleness and commercial sure-footedness required in such a fast-moving industry.

“If this collection illustrates that it is not always easy to get all these things right, we also hope that we have demonstrated that at their best, trust and charitable ownership can deliver valuable outcomes that might not otherwise be achievable. They should take on a much more prominent part in the current debate about the future of news.”

Separately, Oxford University Press has recently released The Oxford Handbook of Civil Society, edited by British-born Michael Edwards, with chapters by him and 37 other invited contributors. Edwards is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on civil society, having lived and worked in Zambia, Malawi, Colombia, India, the United Kingdom and the United States, most notably as the former director of the Ford Foundation’s Governance and Civil Society Program. A few years ago, he wrote a book entitled Civil Society, which Oxford University Press calls “the most authoritative single-authored book on civil society.”

Civil society is defined by The Oxford Handbook of Civil Society as “occupying the middle ground between the state and private life, the civil sphere encompasses everything from associations to protests to church groups to nongovernmental organizations. Interest in the topic exploded with the decline of statism in the 1980s and 1990s…”

In my chapter, entitled, “Civil Society and Public Journalism,” I discuss both the “news media crisis and the decline of the public sphere,” but also the exciting recent developments in the United States, in a section called “A New Journalism Ecosystem.” I review the recent proliferation of nonprofit news publishers in the U.S., as well as the creation in 2009 of the Investigative News Network, and across the world, the creation in 2001 of the Global Investigative Journalism Network “among different nonprofit investigative journalism organizations to support training and sharing information — but not produce content — at international conferences.

Unfortunately, Oxford University Press has not granted us permission to post my chapter online here. The excellent, very carefully prepared book with the most comprehensive, global perspective about “civil society,” is available for purchase online for, unfortunately, $150.

Indeed, this week, I will be speaking at the seventh Global Investigative Journalism conference held around the world since 2001, in Kiev, Ukraine, which will be attended by 500 reporters and editors from more than 80 countries. For more information about the conference, the program, the speakers, the subjects du jour, click here.

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