The ravages of consolidation and the rise of the Internet have converged to create a crisis in journalism. Job cuts have decimated newsrooms, media companies have closed foreign bureaus, and the number of journalists covering statehouses has shrunk to almost zero in many places. Many small cities and towns — and even large cities like New Orleans — are now without a daily local newspaper.
But good things can emerge from bad situations, and observers have heralded the rise of nonprofit journalism organizations as one of the news industry’s most promising developments. In the last several years, veteran reporters, tech-savvy journalists and members of the public have started dozens of vibrant journalism nonprofits.
Since 2008, there has been a spike in applications for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status from such organizations. The IRS has not kept pace with the uptick, and it’s holding nearly all of these applications until it decides how it will rule. The agency has been cautious in its approach and has blocked many innovative nonprofit journalism endeavors.
Those outlets that won IRS approval before the agency’s clamp-down began, such as ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, MinnPost and Voice of San Diego, are covering issues the mainstream media have largely abandoned, winning awards and engaging communities in the process.
Nonprofit journalism is not a silver bullet for the future of journalism. But fostering a more diverse media system is. If the IRS decides against allowing nonprofit status for newsrooms, it will essentially be arguing that all journalism should be done for profit. The problem is, the market has shown it will not support the full extent and diversity of news and perspectives we need.
The IRS is working with a set of outdated policies that don’t account for the state of our media today. In the long term, we need to change those policies, but right now we should focus on clearing the way so we can get more journalists serving our communities.