In their analysis of what ails the journalism business (CJR.org, 10/19/09), Leonard Downie, Jr., and Michael Schudson seem to pooh-pooh the idea that newspapers could be turned into non-profits funded by endowments, "as though they were museums."
"It would take an endowment of billions of dollars to produce enough investment income to run a single sizeable newspaper," Downie and Schudson write, "much less large numbers of papers in communities across the country."
But would it really? At another point in the article they note that the Baltimore Sun is down to 150 reporters–but it seems like you'd still have to call that a "sizeable newspaper," able to do a great deal of the "accountability journalism" that Downie and Schudson are rightly focused on…particularly since, based on the figures they give, the typical state capital only has seven full-time reporters. Let's say you can hire a reporter for $100,000; that would give you a journalistic payroll of $15 million. To get that using the average rate of return for college and university endowments for 1998-2007, you would need a nest egg of about $174 million. If you had an endowment of $2 billion and got that rate of return, you could hire more than 1,700 reporters–maybe that's what Downie and Schudson mean by "sizeable."
Is it possible for the public to amass that kind of funding to support journalism? The same group that provided the college investment income figures, the National Association of College and University Business Officers, reports that a total of 785 academic institutions across North America had a combined endowment of $411 billion–enough to hire 350,000 reporters.
Education is important; so is journalism. The difference is that our society recognizes that capitalism is not going to provide us with all the educational institutions that we need. When we realize that the same thing is true for journalism, we'll be able to find the resources.