Profit is dead. Long live Public Interest: Journalism in 2012 and beyond

Photo by Joe Athialy (Flickr)

Comment by Alex Klaushofer.

With the first week of the New Year bringing only warnings from politicians and economists, it seems that wise men have realised it would be foolish to feign optimism for 2012. But while things remain bleak on the economic front, there is at last a glimmer of hope for those rooting for quality journalism.

As Ian Burrell documents in this Independent article, philanthropically-funded journalism has been burgeoning in the States for some time. Over the last decade, the US not-for-profit sector has invested over a billion dollars in quality journalism, while its leading light, the non-profit news body ProPublica, which was only founded in 2008, is thriving, and now has some 1,300 donors.

Meanwhile, Down Under, a major new initiative is to launch next month. Funded by Australian entrepreneur Graeme Wood to the tune of almost £10 million, The Global Mail aims to provide independent international journalism in the public interest.

A similar trend finally seems to be taking root in Britain. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been very productive since launching some twenty months ago, while The Journalism Foundation, a new charitable foundation funding journalism which serves the public good, was born in December.

Meanwhile, in regional journalism, York-based news website One&Other is to launch a print edition funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. There are also plans for the social enterprise, which started with backing from the charity UnLimited, to launch seven similar projects in cities around the UK over the next three years.

The significance of these developments lies not in their pioneering of the new, longed-for business model that will save quality journalism; as one editor points out, the ProPublica model is hardly a commercial one that can be replicated by media businesses.

The tide that is turning is more about socio-economic attitude; the rise of grant-funded journalism indicates a growing recognition that journalism is a good-in-itself rather than just another means to profitability, and profits are seen as the means to this end. In other words, what matters is people – or in this case, readers – an attitude that can comfortably be shared by both grant-funded models and commercial bodies with realistic profit aspirations.

Historically, it was this more reasonable attitude towards profit that was held by the proprietors of local papers back in the day – yes, they wanted their organ to wash its own face, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor. But their expectations of the revenues that could be generated by a inherently labour-intensive craft were modest, attenuated by the recognition that the point of the paper was to serve the local community.

Contrast this, then, with the profit margins expected by some regional publishers a century or so later, with news groups such as Johnston Press achieving profits of up to 29%.

Yet, with journalism hitting exceptionally hard times, it seems that a kick-back has begun as people cast around not just for different ways of achieving the same financial outcomes, but for different attitudes to those outcomes.

The pioneers of this not-for-excessive-profit attitude include Nigel Lowther, founder-editor of the Cleethorpes Chronicle, who says he would be content with profits of around five per cent, and David Ainsworth, who has argued on this site that the charitable model could save local papers.

Meanwhile, founder-editor of the New Camden Journal Eric Gordon has called for a government-backed ‘media bank’ to ensure the survival of the local press, while others are promoting the cooperative model.

Of course, it’s doubtful that all these ideas will translate into concrete reality. But what’s valuable here is the way they change the terms in which the debate about the media economy is framed, just as in the wider economy the failings of unchecked capitalism have led to a questioning of the desirability of endless growth.

So here’s, in 2012, to the spread of a more realistic, nuanced approach to media profitability which remembers that journalism is – and arguably always has been – about serving the public interest.

Wishing you all a very sustainable 2012.