Doing good still requires a business model

Posted on April 26, 2011 by Janet Coats

I’ve been calling it the telethon model of funding journalism, but Jeff Jarvis is – as usual – more blunt.

Jarvis calls it begging. As in: “Begging is not a business model. It’s lazy to think that foundations and contributions can solve news’ problems. There isn’t enough money there.’’

Jarvis is an associate professor and director of the interactive journalism and new business models for news projects at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. He’s also an often provocative thinker and writer about journalism, especially the economic model.

He’s written a post called “Hard Economic Lessons for News’’ that should be required reading for everyone who cares about funding journalism – from legacy publishers to entrepreneurs who are starting from scratch.

In my role as initiative manager for The Patterson Foundation, I get more than a few inquiries about what it takes to get a grant from Patterson. I’ve fielded three such requests in the last week alone.

Of course, that’s not the way we work at TPF. We don’t accept grant proposals and we don’t solicit them. We aren’t interested in enabling a single project or entrepreneur; we want to help an entire network. We look for projects that we can both support and learn from in the process. And we look for projects where we can bring unique value – not just financial value, but by bringing our intellectual capital and our networks to the table.

My work in the last 18 months with TPF has formed my thinking about the role of foundations and contributions in funding journalism, and they do have a place. That place, I think, is in enabling innovation, experimentation and learning – not in providing long-term operating funding. Our model at TPF has been to think of our role as providing rocket fuel for innovation – we can provide that boost, but we don’t think our role is to build the rocket or maintain it once it launches.

I’m not saying that our approach is the one true way; charting journalism’s future requires lots of different methods and a willingness to experiment. And I’ve heard more than a few start-up publishers talk with great passion about their desire to operate on non-profit funding to avoid being held hostage to the advertising model that has traditionally funded journalism.

But as Jarvis makes clear in his post, we’re all going to be held hostage to something – all money has strings attached in some way, and anybody who gives you funding is expecting some kind of return on that investment.

Besides, viewing sustainability - whatever your model - as a necessary evil reflects a lack of understanding about how any enterprise of value must work. Any enterprise, even those with noble intent, has to have a value proposition and a means of sustaining itself. You can’t do any good in the world, if that is your goal, without focusing on the unique value of your work and how it will sustain itself.

As Jarvis also notes, “virtue is not a business model.’’

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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