Nonprofit news organizations are winning awards and covering issues mainstream media doesn’t, so why is the IRS clamping down on nonprofit media?
from yes! magazine
Right now, the Internal Revenue Service is considering whether journalism and media organizations should be eligible for nonprofit status. That may sound odd given that nonprofit journalism has been a part, albeit a small part, of American media for decades—think Mother Jones, NPR, the Christian Science Monitor, even the Associated Press. YES! Magazine itself has operated as a nonprofit since its founding 16 years ago.
Nonetheless, a whole cadre of new journalism start-ups like the San Francisco Public Press, Worcester Wired, and Monitor Oklahoma have been waiting months—some even years—for the IRS to approve their applications for nonprofit status.
How did we get here?
At the end of the last decade, it was becoming increasingly clear that the advertiser-driven commercial media model was not producing the full extent of news and information our communities need. Job cuts decimated newsrooms, companies closed foreign bureaus, and the number of journalists covering statehouses had shrunk to almost zero in many places.
Ideally American media would be as diverse as American communities in representation, perspectives, and business models.
In response to these changes, many journalists turned to a nonprofit model that would refocus newsrooms on their public mission instead of just their stock prices. Since 2008, there has been a spike in applications for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status from journalism organizations. This uptick has raised red flags at the IRS, which has put a hold on nearly all of these new journalism applications until it decides how it will rule.
We are at a critical juncture. This moment could be the start of a new era of noncommercial journalism in America, with innovative new nonprofits poised to fill the gaps in meaningful reporting that have been left by much of commercial media. Those nonprofit journalism organizations that won IRS approval before the agency’s clamp-down began, such as ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, MinnPost and Voice of San Diego, are illustrating the power of this model. They are winning awards, engaging communities, and covering issues that the mainstream media have largely abandoned.
The seeds of change are there, but this delay at the IRS is hindering the growth and sustainability of nonprofit journalism efforts. Worse, a bad ruling from the IRS could threaten the survival of even longstanding nonprofit publications and websites.
In the same way that monoculture crops are dangerous to the food system because they are all share the same weaknesses, for too long our journalism ecosystem has suffered from monocultural thinking.
If the IRS decides against allowing nonprofit status for newsrooms, it will essentially be arguing that all journalism should be done for profit.