Nonprofits are always looking for ways to make news. Now a new nonprofit will literally be making news in Houston. Houston Endowment, the Kinder Foundation and Arnold Ventures have announced that they will spend $20 million to establish an independent nonprofit news outlet in Houston within the next year.
It follows a model that was developed 13 years ago when the Texas Tribune was founded in Austin as a statewide nonprofit news organization. In 2019, the Tribune reported revenue of $15 million, raised largely through donations and grants, and a staff of 109, proving the model can work.
One wrinkle to this is that the Houston Endowment owned the local Houston Chronicle for 30 years before selling it to the Hearst Corporation in 1987. Now it is putting $7.5 million into the new organization that could be considered competition for the Chronicle.
Nonprofits should welcome another news outlet and new opportunities to call attention to their causes. On a personal note, as a former reporter, I know that more news competition is a valuable thing.
But this raises a question - what problem does this solve? I mean really solve? The Chronicle's biggest problem is not its quality. it's the fact that its audience and revenue base are disappearing. A lot of very good journalists have left through layoffs and buyouts spread out over more than a decade. Other news outlets have also cutback or shut down, including the nonprofit Houston Public Media, which laid off staff during the pandemic.
A wise man once said, "The stone age didn't end because they ran out of stones." News organizations aren't struggling because they stopped covering the news. People just stopped paying attention. The combined circulation of all of the papers in the country hit an all-time high of about 63.3 million in 1984 and it has been plummeting ever since, down to less than 25 million at the latest estimate. The drop in revenue has been even worse, with advertising sales dropping from nearly $50 million to less than $9 million.
The decline started just as cable TV was taking off in the 1980's. Now cable TV is watching online content steal its audience plummet as more Americans cut the chord. Increasing numbers of people are finding their news on social media. A recent UNICEF/Gallup poll found that social media was the source where 45% of young people get their news. Then the same poll found that young people listed social media as the least trustworthy source of information. So there is that.
When I was just a young pup starting out as a reporter AP's White House correspondent Helen Thomas was one of my heroes . She is quoted as saying, "You cannot have a democracy without an informed people." The new nonprofit news organization shouldn't be judged by the quality of its journalism, but by its ability to inform people who are no longer paying attention to the news!