Turning newspaper chains into charities: A new business model?

“Before you click that donate button, time to think long and hard about newspaper business models,” writes the managing editor of RealVail.com, the nemesis and competitor to the “for profit” Vail Daily, which is owned by The Union’s parent, Nevada-based Swift.  

Like the Vail Daily in Colorado, The Union in Grass Valley also has launched a donate button on its website during the coronavirus crisis. I flinched when I first saw it here. Newspaper chains holding out a proverbial tin cup?

“There’s a growing school of thought that the old business models just don’t work in the newspaper industry anymore – even in resort markets like ours with captive audiences – and that public, private and nonprofit institutions no longer should be looking to bail out old-school newspaper chains but rather the individual journalists those chains marginally employ,” RealVail.com continued.

Like others, the Swift-owned newspaper in Vail is not standing still. To weather the downturn, “longtime, loyal and dedicated staff members are taking pay cuts of 20% and several staffers at the Vail Daily have been or will be indefinitely furloughed,” RealVail.com’s managing editor continued. 

You can learn more about The Union’s own cost-cutting actions, and the impact of the coronavirus crisis on its revenues, in a frank discussion here.

RealVail.com is an online-only “news, political, environmental, business, opinion and outdoor lifestyle site.” In our region, YubaNet might be seen as analogous to RealVail.com in general terms — that is, a free local news website.

To be sure, YubaNet seeks “subscriptions,” but it’s for a specific reason: “raising funds for a standby generating system” costing $25,000. And unlike The Union, YubaNet does not have a print edition that charges subscriptions or a “pay wall.”

It’s no secret that newspapers all over are struggling with their business model in the era of Google and Facebook, and searching for answers.

A “modest proposal” in Canada

An article titled “Turning newspapers into charities: A new model for the future” in the Canadian Journalism Project states: “One idea that is getting some traction [in Canada] is the idea of enabling Canadians to make charitable donations to newspapers—turn them into charities that can accept donations and issue tax receipts.”

“The Canadian government is prepared to give that some thought. In the most recent budget, it promises to explore ‘new models that will enable private giving and philanthropic support for trusted, professional, non-profit journalism and local news.’

“This could include new ways for Canadian newspapers to innovate and be recognized to receive charitable status for not-for-profit provision of journalism, reflecting the public interest that they serve.”

The article concludes: “I know I sound like a downer — I don’t mean to be. I think being able to donate to keep my local newspaper alive is good idea, and one worth exploring.”

We have made donations to YubaNet in the past and would not be opposed to making a donation to The Union either. Publisher Don Rogers is doing a good job given the circumstances and resources. But I’d like to see a long-term plan for survival, well beyond a “donate button.” After all, we have a lot of nonprofits around here who also need our support.

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website SierraCulture.com. Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years, and he was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News for eight years, among other positions. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing, swimming, and trout fishing in the Sierra.

2 thoughts on “Turning newspaper chains into charities: A new business model?”

  1. We may need a gofundme for our own hospital, to keep our healthcare workers safe, and the newspaper is asking for donations? The front page of the Union should be filled with how to help battle this virus. Our headlines should be how we have a report of an army of seamstresses that are making masks and PPEs for our healthcare workers on the front lines. They should be reporting how we have company,s in Grass Valley/Nevada City who can make ventilators or any other machine that could help. (or even parts for the machine) And another army of folks out procuring supplies for our hospital.
    Anyone gone online to buy masks? Nitril Gloves? Purell? Our hospital is using Google to re supply, because there is no support from our Administration. Our hospital is now competing with the whole country/world for life saving supplies and the newspaper is asking for money?

  2. In the age of corporate media the idea of non-profit news organizations could be a good one. It is a well known fact that conglomerate owned media often fail to disclose conflicts of interest in their reporting. Westinghouse, who once owned NBC and later CBS (though not at the same time) was renown for censoring news stories on its stations about nuclear power plant problems by not mentioning the fact that Westinghouse built the plants with the problems. Big money ad buyers also hold huge leverage over what media outlets do or do not cover. Some 40 plus years ago when Long’s Drugs opened their store in the Glenbrook basin (now CVC) they ran a full two page ad in The Union touting all of the various goods and services they sold under one roof. Back then that was a huge ad buy. I wrote a letter to the editor pointing out how locally owned small businesses (who might splurge and buy a quarter page now and then) would be hurt by this corporate invasion. The Union refused to print it telling me they would not allow me to “attack” their advertisers. Today the public is hammered with ‘expert’ opinions, especially on political talk shows, without disclosing the connections (often monetary) between the talking heads and the industries/issues they champion. The public then gets a biased point of view from paid shills without really knowing it. Perhaps not for profit news organizations would give the public a more unbiased view of the happenings in the world.

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