The Newseum—perched opposite the National Gallery of Art on Pennsylvania Avenue in our nation’s capital—is an emblem, in a way it never wanted to be, of journalism today. Just like the profession it celebrates, the museum is threatened by financial travails. For now, the Newseum is being kept afloat by philanthropy. Whether the wider culture and industry of news reporting can be rescued by the same savior is a question examined by this issue of Philanthropy magazine.
When the glitzy shrine to popular journalism that is pictured here opened in 2008, the news business in America was closer to its high-water mark. The year before, the New York Times had moved its reporters into a grand new edifice into which the publisher sunk close to half a billion dollars. The big cheese of the websites created to hook readers on cheaper fare, the Huffington Post, was then just three years old, and exactly halfway from its 2005 founding to its 2011 sale for $315 million.
By 2014, newspapers, TV news programs, and news magazines were in tatters, with former heavyweight Newsweek being given away for a dollar, its reporting staff bone thin. And the Newseum, for all its physical grandeur, is following an eerily similar path. Despite successive waves of layoffs, its budget shortfalls continue to grow, and the philanthropic foundation that operates the facility has shrunk from a billion-dollar endowment to just $340 million.
Can philanthropists and businessmen with a taste for “social investing” do more than just soften the losses at news-reporting organizations whose business models have collapsed? Can they subsidize certain kinds of investigating and publishing to serve public interests? Can they help discover and extend new formats, new reporters, and new subjects that will strengthen journalism’s role in maintaining the health and freedom of American society?
Some givers think public-spirited investment may have a significant role to play in future news reporting. A few already are putting big money into the field. Others think philanthropy will only distract the press from independent oversight of the public interest. In the pages that follow you can have a look at some current experiments, then decide for yourself.