Once upon a time, newspapers were thick, stuffed with ads and flush with revenues from classifieds, glossy inserts and supermarket coupons.
In that pre-Internet era, the money would subsidize in-depth reporting of government, education, politics and other news essential for democracy.
That profit-making model has fallen apart, leaving little to no cash to pay for the public-service journalism necessary for a working democracy.
In her new book, Klein College Assistant Professor of Journalism Magda Konieczna explores the role nonprofits have performed as newsgatherers.
"At a time when newspapers are closing, laying off staff, reducing the frequency of their print editions, and increasingly producing fast and easy copy, nonprofit news organizations are trying to buck the trend," Konieczna writes in "Journalism Without Profit: Making News When the Market Fails," published by Oxford University Press.
Konieczna, who before entering academia worked as a city hall reporter for a Canadian newspaper, examines the operating environments of "small" and "upstart" news-making nonprofits "formed for the most part this millennium by former commercial journalists frustrated with a news media they saw as unable to uphold its democratic responsibilities in the face of a failing business model."
She writes: "While some have won major awards and others strive for something approximating comprehensive coverage of a region or topic, none have anywhere near the heft or resources of traditional newsrooms. Many are at the mercy of a funder or two; several have folded when that key supporter has backed out. Some Americans have heard of one or a couple of them; mostly, though, they toil in relative obscurity."
Her book focuses on how nonprofit news organizations work to fulfill a role once subsidized by profit-making entities by revenues earned through retail and classified advertising and their attention to sports and entertainment news.
"There's a huge range of what 'nonprofit news' really means," Konieczna said in an interview. "In the book I'm really concerned about, thinking about, public service journalism - the stuff that really is essential for our democracy to function."
The book, she said, provides "a detailed theoretical dive" into the nonprofit news concept.
"I think the question where will our journalism come from and in particular the kind of journalism that really is essential for democracy to function is a really important question that all of us need to be thinking about."
Philadelphia has what she called a "vibrant" group of nonprofit journalism outlets, among them the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, which provides intensely focused coverage of education; long-form news-teller WHYY and the oft-unlooked-history news site Hidden City Philadelphia. The Los Angeles-based Institute of Nonprofit News maintains an online directory of such organizations working in the U.S.
Konieczna focused part of her research on the work done by the Center for Public Integrity, which was founded in 1989 and which bills itself as "one of the country's oldest and largest nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organizations." She also examines the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, which partners with mainstream, profit-making news organizations to expand and enhance local, news coverage. Additionally, Konieczna researched the work of Minn Post, an online publication providing news from the capital, St. Paul, and Twin City, Minneapolis.
"What can these small startups do that these large news organizations can't do? The answer is they're really focusing on that public service, investigative journalism, and watchdog journalism," she said. "They are funded by foundations. They don't really need to be focused on the 'clicks.' They are collaborating with news organizations and give the content away for free. By giving their stories away, they are able to leverage their small size. For a lot of these organizations, they're thinking of getting stories where people are already are. They're working to elevate the content at the local level."