Foundation Friday: In Praise of Citizen Kane

Emily Rauh Pulitzer has pledged $500,000 of the $2 million a group of St. Louis journalists need to launch an on-line “newspaper” to provide old-fashioned local journalism of the type no longer available from the Post-Dispatch, now owned by a conglomerate (like most American newspapers, and none of them the better for it). She styles her gift a challenge grant, explaining that the venture can only succeed with broad community support.

Ordinarily the Nonprofiteer is a big fan of challenge grants, and she makes it a point not to decide how much charity other people can afford or where it should be directed; but here’s the thing. The old economic model of newspapering, where classified ads subsidized reporting, has been destroyed and not [yet] replaced. With so much free content available on the Web (including this thing you’re reading right now), newspapers and their electronic editions and equivalents are lucky if their communities support them by reading what they so laboriously report and write, as opposed to accepting as news what PR flacks–for government as well as corporations–don’t mind having us all know.

But an independent press is something whose importance is largely felt only in its absence. If a community is full of people who don’t see why they should pay 75 cents for information whose equivalent is available on-line for free, it seems misguided to ask it to demonstrate its commitment with larger sums. At the same time, whether or not the community realizes it this minute, democracy can’t operate without people whose paid profession it is to notice what the government and the business community are doing wrong. Without veteran local journalists to ask hard questions of local politicians and local business moguls, it really hardly matters if there’s still a First Amendment.

The set of people who are in a position to underwrite a newspaper so other people can get good information is pretty small. And the subset of people in that financial position who know in their DNA that the single most important place to put money is into the conversation that makes democracy possible is even tinier. The heiress to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch fortune–and, more important, to the most respected name in journalism–may well be that subset’s only member.

And if in fact no one else steps up to the plate–if she had to pay $2 million all by herself year after year to keep St. Louis in decent journalism–then, like Citizen Kane, she might observe,

You’re right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars *next* year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in… 60 years.

Only in her case–even at $2 million a year instead of 1–it would be more like 200 years.

There’s no need to echo the St. Louis reporter who styled the Pulitzer gift “chintzy.” Ms. Pulitzer’s generosity is not the issue; it’s her use of the challenge mechanism. And the Nonprofiteer simply suggests that these days, giving people a high-quality newspaper and asking them to respond to it like citizens is challenge enough.

h/t Michael Miner, Hot Type in the Chicago Reader


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