Thoughts on tax status and journalism

Journalism is the messy art of connecting that which is true with that which can be understood. I’ve defined it in other ways before. However you define it though, practitioners like me tend to assume it is important. We work to maintain it.

In the past few months, I’ve taken a critical look at that assumption, that journalism matters. One way I’ve done that is thinking about the types of organizations that produce whatever it is that journalism is.

In periods of economic change, when institutions or processes or elements of culture are lost, challenging the assumption of importance matters. It’s a crucial step. Are we trying to hold on to this thing because of tradition or because something functionally has import?

Political philosophy is rich with debate over what crucial societal functions should be enshrined into government, or maintained by charitable organizations and what the free market can do best. With the economic disruption confronting how journalism is produced, this question is relevant again.

Many lessons about the future can be found by looking at how journalism was produced for 500 years. For one, gathering professionally-verified information was almost entirely produced as a tool of commercial enterprises. The profit it caused resulted in the heights of 20th century investment.

The nonprofit tax status exists because we believe there are social goods that the market won’t sustain and our government won’t perform. Yes, nonprofit is a tax status, not a business model, though that tax status both psychologically and legally allows organizations to tap into charitable dollars differently than for profits.

Some nonprofits perform crucial social services (soup kitchens, advocacy groups for underrepresented groups) and some are for the preservation of a piece of culture (the ballet, heritage groups).

Because journalism is rightly considered today as a societal good that is at risk, we’re witnessing the rise of nonprofit journalism. Mostly I think that’s very exciting. But I’m nervous about the rush to characterize acts of journalism entirely in this nonprofit status.

I do think there are pieces of what we expect from a journalism community that are crucial social services. It’s in this sense that some nonprofit journalism organizations might very much look like journalism strategy brought to political watchdogs or advocacy groups. I do also think it’s quite inevitable that there are elements of local newspapers in particular that civic patricians will clamor to maintain that will look like cultural preservation.

Nonprofit journalism is best suited to fill the deepest gaps today’s economic shock is leaving behind. But I think the need for professionally-verified information is too widespread to be addressed by a tax status that was established to fill gaps the market can’t. I believe those who care about the preservation of journalism should want examples of testing whether customer models can support vibrant community journalism.

We need nonprofit journalism. We also want examples in which journalism is deployed by profit-making ventures. It’s one major reason why Technically Media remains a for profit.

Journalism is a strategy that can solve business goals and exist in a market niche. I can’t quite figure why it wouldn’t. It was an effective strategy for at least half a millennia. The only thing that stopped it was that the entirety of the trade was captured by a single business model, which was taken entirely by new platforms.