There are some journalistic institutions that are too big to change. And at their grand funerals, someone can eulogize that these newspaper giants stuck to their guns. But maybe the old guard is right. Maybe once the economy turns around, things will get better.
Still, there are others who are working their asses off to reincarnate journalism with a more flexible business model.
Plenty of theories on how to save journalism have been tossed about in the last several years, but so far none has taken hold. How can newspapers make money when everyone wants to read content online and no one wants to pay for it—or be bombarded by ads? Not many papers (aside from friendly alt.weeklies) can survive on advertising revenues alone, and even those that can are struggling in the Great Recession. And so questions about the future of our industry, and of trustworthy avenues for information-sharing, hang like a persistent fog.
The new shapes journalism takes, whatever they may be, will have to be diverse, and they will have to be adaptable.
The Chicago News Cooperative is an experiment that hopes to answer some of those questions. It's an “L3C”—a low-profit, limited liability company, and it’s the first of its kind. Former Chicago Tribune Managing Editor Jim O'Shea unveiled it on Thursday, Oct. 22. Its infancy will be as a nonprofit, but on Jan. 1, 2010, the cooperative will take an L3C form. On the first of the new year, a law allowing L3Cs goes into effect in Illinois.
L3Cs walk the line between nonprofits and for-profits. Basically, it's a model that doesn't expect to make much money. Like charities, L3Cs look for private investments and philanthropic capital, and those who provide such funds can use them for tax exemptions. But unlike charities, L3Cs are allowed to distribute profits to investors.
Vermont was the first state to enact legislation that allowed the new type of company in April of 2008. But the trend is catching. Michigan, Wyoming and Illinois have already passed legislation, and more than half a dozen other states are also considering it, along with Congress.
The Chicago News Cooperative is brand-new, but it's already got an agreement with the New York Times to provide some local news for a Chicago edition of the Times that's starting this month. And the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a grantmaking organization whose mission it is to support creative people and defend human rights, has said it will be a donor.
L3Cs can't salvage journalism alone, but they may be one of many models that, together, could save it. As the skyrocketing of social networking has taught us, models based on the proliferation of information don't stay static for long. The new shapes journalism takes, whatever they may be, will have to be diverse, and they will have to be adaptable. And L3Cs may be a good place to start.