New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet and his No. 2, Joseph Kahn, told staff members this weekend that the company will seek non-profit partners to help offset the costs of its journalism at a time when advertising revenue continues its quicksand downward spiral.
In a memo to staff that was remarkable in its forthright revelation of the economic challenges facing the paper, Baquet and Kahn said that NYT administrative veteran Janet Elder will “build an operation that will allow The Times to seek philanthropic funding for ambitious journalism.”
“Over the past year a host of philanthropies and universities have come forward asking to help support our journalism,” they wrote September 1. “Invariably, they say we are one of the few institutions with the independence and ambition to take on the largest subjects here and abroad. This is one of the most compelling developments in our business. Philanthropies across the country are providing money for big investigations, including our own ‘Fractured Lands,’ the magazine’s epic examination of the post-Arab Spring Middle East, which was funded in part by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.”
Read the full memo here.
The Times move to seek financial partners comes at a critical point for the paper, which is locked in a ferocious competition with the Washington Post over coverage of the Trump Administration. Trading scoops by the day, and sometimes by the hour, the two papers have beefed up their reporting staffs in some areas – particularly in their Washington and foreign bureaus – while trimming elsewhere. At 1,300 people, the Times staff is nearly double that of the Post‘s 750. Total subscriptions to The Times exceed 3 million, two-thirds of which are digital-only, while advertisers are diverting their dollars to online giants Facebook, Amazon and Alphabet. (The Post is owned by Amazon chief Jeff Bezos.)
In recent years, The Times, along with most major newspapers, has published reporting jointly produced by its reporters and non-profit journalism ventures including the foundation-supported ProPublica, The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity.
At the same time, the paper has shown a reluctance to cede control of its own standards, at a cost to its competitiveness. That was notably the case with the Panama Papers, in 2015, when some 11.5 million documents from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, detailing decades of barely legal off-shore companies created as tax shelters, were published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. While the explosive story commanded headlines around the world, The Times held off for days as it conducted its own investigation of the documents, leading to criticism from both within and outside its Eighth Avenue headquarters.
In the digital age, two years is an eternity, however. The Baquet/Kahn memo acknowledges both the challenge of accepting outside help and the need to new revenue streams.
“Janet’s initial task will be to begin a dialogue, both internally and externally, about different types of nonprofit funding and the kinds of newsroom activities that might be supported, as well as addressing legal questions and potential ethical considerations in moving in this direction,” they wrote.
The leaked memo was immediately cast as an industry bellwether. “Being so forthright about its search for non-subscriber or non-advertising help is notable,” the Poynter Institute observed, “especially with self-sustaining future media business models so very unclear. This search is important and, as folks at The Times know, not without peril.
“Taking money from a group like the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is one thing…But taking money directly from donors is inherently troublesome. Even if donors don’t make clear their desire for a particular thesis or ideological slant, there are the potentials for self-censorship. Money talks.”