None seem to have figured out how to make money from the content they produce. Even Pro Publica, which to its credit is reducing its dependency on its founding patron, Herb Sandler, from 95 percent to what it hopes will be 30 percent of its total revenue, still depends largely on private largesse.
The challenge they face is finding enduring sources of income, if they can’t rely on selling ads or selling content, and an attractive place to look would be in activities that mingle the civic and the commercial — which have both social purpose and market value.
The four-year-old Texas Tribune has recently drawn admiring attention for the apparent success of its aggressive conference business, in which sponsorships and admission are sold around high-quality public events the online publication organizes. With an expected $1.2 million from 60 to 70 events this year, the Austin-based Tribune might be reproached for turning itself into a conference company whose publishing serves mainly to brand its events.
But the Tribune has correctly, I think, identified a civic service — fostering the indispensable public conversation about common concerns — that was really the essence of the community-building value that the traditional newspaper delivered.
Making civic outreach pay isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible either. It needs to be part of a mosaic of income-producing initiatives — comprising customized spinoffs, specialized subscription streams, social media mini-networks, and more — that will tax the ingenuity of the next generation of publishers but which will, if we’re lucky, provide the news media with the clean and renewable money they’ll need to serve the rest of us.