News. Mediapart, the French digital news service founded 11 years ago by the former editor of Le Monde, Edwy Plenel, has become a not-for-profit foundation in order to preserve its independence and mission of defending the freedom and plurality of the French press. As The Guardian (whose long-standing charity status has inspired Mediapart) says: “The site has become a thorn in the side of politicians, public figures and those with something to hide”. It also noted that, unlike The Guardian which has been struggling to get to breakeven after years of heavy losses, Mediapart is highly profitable: “The website also makes money. Lots of it, despite having no advertising, no public subsidies and no wealthy patrons, being entirely financed by reader subscriptions (currently €110 a year, €50 for students, pensioners and the unemployed or those on low incomes).” The Guardian should be as impressed by Mediapart as much as Mediapart is impressed by it.
When it started in 2008, Mediapart had 25 staff. It now has 80, including a US correspondent, an English-language site, a free “Club” that runs parallel to the main site with blogs and commentaries and is branching out into live video blogs and television. Its protective change of status comes one year after Montreal’s 130-year-old La Presse news group became a not-for-profit, spun-off from its former parent Power Corporation of Canada. La Presse now operates as a “social trust”. Power Corp, which owned La Presse through its subsidiary Square Victoria Communications Group, donated $50n to give the new venture a nice start.
Non-profit journalism is really nothing new. In 1846, five New York newspapers formed a co-operative to share reports from the Mexico-America war. That became Associated Press and is still a non-profit co-operative. New Internationalist magazine has been published for the past 46 years in the UK as one of the world’s longest-lasting non-profit publications. The year after its launch in 1973, came The Chicago Reporter.
More recently, non-profit journalism organizations such as ProPublica, MinnPost and Voice of San Diego have become non-profit journalism organisations, like the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
In 2016, the cable TV entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Gerry Lenfest donated Philadelphia’s two largest newspapers – The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News – and a substantial amount of cash – to the non-profit Philadelphia Foundation
There are a rising number of media ventures supported by individual philanthropists, including The City, a website which has been covering local news in New York since April this year. In keeping with the US capital of capital, The City has attracted donations and grants of some $10m – double that of the US non-profit news pioneer the Texas Tribune which started a decade ago. The City’s publisher is a former investment banker (of course) and will spend $4m this year, much of it on his team of 18 reporters. He has almost three years in which to secure revenue funding for the site. Bloomberg estimates that The City is one of about 200 non-profit newsrooms across the US, propelled by the demise of local news.
In the UK, the country’s leading provider of news, the BBC, is proposing to launch a new charity to fund local news reporting, in conjunction with tech companies. The “Local Democracy Foundation” would pay for local journalists to report on local government meetings, while also covering crime and other news stories that were once the staple diet of local newspapers. That’s a nice idea but it might be even better for the new charity specifically to support non-profit news services rather than commercial operations.
At a time when it is facing challenges to its archaic “licence fee” funding, the BBC could become a single-minded, public-spirited patron of charity-delivered news, perhaps providing content, training and technology – at what could be little real cost. But, then, the state-funded broadcaster’s strongest critics among the UK’s daily newspaper proprietors might just get (even more) upset.