It’s a strange moment for American journalism. On the one hand, Donald Trump’s nonstop assaults on the free press have reminded many Americans of its value. In the aftermath of his election, newspaper subscriptions and premium news-site memberships skyrocketed, like a body producing white blood cells to fight an infection, as readers were motivated both by a need to stay on top of political news and by a sense of civic duty.
On the other hand, the Trump bump, which peaked in 2017, has since been wearing off. Its impact, in any event, was largely concentrated on larger publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post, which were already doing pretty well. Meanwhile, the forces that have wrought so much damage on print media over the past decade—industry consolidation, the marauding effects of leveraged buyouts and venture capital, and, above all, Facebook and Google vacuuming up of nearly every new dollar of advertising revenue—remain as potent as ever.
In short, Trump can’t destroy the free press—as much as he might wish to—but neither will the sheer galvanizing effect of his presidency be enough to save it. It is therefore up to media organizations to continue experimenting with new ways of staying financially viable.
One of the more promising approaches is the rise in nonprofit journalism. In Austin, the Texas Tribune has proved for years that nonprofit news, focused on state politics and government accountability, can thrive. The national outlet ProPublica, which typically partners with other publications, consistently produces some of the most important and highest quality investigative stories out there—and this year launched an ambitious project aimed at supplementing the investigative capacity of local newspapers. In a similar spirit, former Washington Monthly editor Steven Waldman recently co-founded Report for America, which will provide stipends for young reporters to get their start working in under-resourced local newsrooms around the country. Then there are the subject-matter-focused nonprofits like the Marshall Project (criminal justice), the Trace (gun violence), and our frequent partner, the Hechinger Report (education).
The basic insight behind the nonprofit model is that the stream of advertising revenue that has traditionally sustained for-profit journalism is inherently precarious—and that, given the tremendous social importance of public-interest journalism, it should be possible to raise the funds necessary to produce it directly from the institutions, philanthropists, and individual readers who value it.
Believe it or not, the Washington Monthly was a bit ahead of the curve here. We’ve been a nonprofit since 2001. During that time, the financial road has not always been smooth. But not being wholly dependent on subscriptions and dwindling ad revenue has allowed the magazine to focus on doing what it does best: producing cutting-edge, ideas-driven policy journalism and savvy, morally grounded political analysis—not to mention launching the careers of star reporters and editors like Nicholas Confessore (the Times), Joshua Green (Bloomberg Businessweek), Rachel Morris (HuffPost Highline) and Haley Sweetland Edwards (Time).
None of this would be possible without the generosity of our readers. If you appreciate what we do, please consider making a donation during this month’s fundraising drive. Today is Giving Tuesday, which is society’s way of saying it’s time to consider some charitable contributions along with your holiday shopping. But don’t just take society’s word for it. Thanks to a generous challenge grant from NewsMatch, a national organization devoted to helping sustain nonprofit journalism, every dollar that you give—whether it’s $10, $50, $500, or more—will be matched. Your donation, of course, is tax deductible. And in return for a gift of $50 or more, you’ll receive a free one-year subscription to our print edition—perfect for sprucing up that coffee table and ungluing your eyes from that glowing screen. Any donation you can afford will be deeply appreciated.