Without Fear or Favor: Building a 'Public Press'

[EDITOR’S NOTE, Dec. 2008: The Public Press project has significantly advanced since the writing of this paper in May 2007. For details, visit The San Francisco Public Press home page.]

A research project to outline a noncommercial model for newspapers

By Michael Stoll, San Jose State University


We propose a yearlong study examining the plausibility of a new model for the ownership and operation of newspapers. A “public press” would be a noncommercial daily newspaper chartered under a popular-education mission similar to that of a public broadcaster. By incorporating as a nonprofit organization and refusing all advertising, the paper would be freed from both the expectation of ever-higher profit margins and the reliance on an increasingly unpredictable ad market.


Financial pressures threaten to undermine the vital role newspapers have played in creating the informed citizenry upon which democracy depends. Reinventing the local paper as an advertising-free public service would pioneer journalism innovations and expand civic engagement, especially in underserved communities.

Nearly all American newspapers are now local monopolies, so they have little incentive to invest in quality reporting. They increasingly rely on cheaply produced, market-driven news — sensational crime, celebrity, commercial fads and lifestyle stories of little significance.

To attract luxury-goods advertising, journalists shift their focus to fashionable neighborhoods and wealth, ignoring the concerns of working-class and minority readers.

Even though they have been losing circulation for decades, most papers consistently generate annual profits in the double digits. To meet expectations, publishers slash costs, cut staff and appeal to advertisers by targeting the wealthy for home delivery and news coverage.

With a new business model, reporters and editors could devote themselves to producing journalism that matters: in-depth news about important social issues, independent consumer reviews and vigorous investigative reporting on public policy.


We will undertake a study of a blueprint for establishing a daily Public Press in one community in the San Francisco Bay Area. The general model could be applied anywhere.

We will study financial projections, readership patterns, test sites and public concerns about unmet information needs.

We will travel to the few newsrooms across the country that already operate as nonprofits — such as the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, the Christian Science Monitor (Boston), The Day (New London, Conn.) and the Anniston (Ala.) Star — to interview journalists and business managers about best practices.

We will also establish a collaborative Web site to solicit ideas from the public at large.

This project will result in a financial and organizational plan incorporating the advice of experts in business management, journalism ethics, design, technology and finance. The product will be a white paper submitted for publication to a professional or academic journal, such as Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly or Columbia Journalism Review.


Independent Arts & Media is a San Francisco-based 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to strengthen democracy by supporting independent voices. IAM sponsors Newsdesk.org, a nonpartisan, commercial-free news Web site covering environment, public health, civic participation and labor & economy. Newsdesk is edited by Josh Wilson (edit [AT] artsandmedia.net), a former editor at SFGate.com (the online portal of the San Francisco Chronicle).

Michael Stoll (michael.stoll [AT] sjsu.edu) is the Public Press’ project director. He teaches journalism at San Jose State University, where he is also associate director of Grade the News (www.gradethenews.org), a media-watchdog project for the San Francisco Bay Area that has received significant funding from the Knight and Ford foundations. He has worked as a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Hartford Courant, and city editor at the San Francisco Examiner.

With support from the Common Counsel Foundation, Stoll is planning a two-week writing residency in June at the Mesa Refuge in Pt. Reyes, Calif., to write an outline for the Public Press plan.

Our growing, informal list of advisers includes: Linda Foley, president, The Newspaper Guild-CWA; Orville Schell, dean, Graduate Program in Journalism, UC Berkeley; Ted Glasser, professor of journalism, Stanford University; Martha Steffens, professor of journalism, Missouri School of Journalism (and former executive editor of the San Francisco Examiner); Joe Mathewson, professor of journalism, Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern; A.C. Thompson, George Polk-award winning reporter, Center for Investigative Reporting; Linda Jue, president, Northern California chapter, Society of Professional Journalists; Tom Stites, associate editor, Center for Public Integrity; Duane Stolzfus, author, “Freedom From Advertising: E.W. Scripps’s Chicago Experiment” (University of Illinois Press, 2007).


Media reformers have proposed an inspiring array of noncommercial journalistic experiments encompassing digital television, low-power FM radio, the Internet and other emerging media. Bill Moyers has called for broader investment by foundations and philanthropists to strengthen the emerging “public media sector.” Yet few have talked of expanding this sector to print — still by far the richest source of original local news reporting.

Nonprofit status would exempt a public press from corporate, property and sales tax, an advantage over for-profit competitors. It would also enable it to seek grants and tax-deductible donations. Excess revenues would be reinvested in the newsroom. Management would be accountable to member-subscribers through regular elections.


San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., are two examples of cities poorly served by large commercial papers owned by out-of-state chains. An Oakland Public Press would compete with the Oakland Tribune at the heart of the newly formed MediaNews regional monopoly. A San Francisco Public Press would quickly identify important stories in marginalized communities that both the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner consistently overlook.

One year.

Freed from dependence on ads, a public press would treat readers as citizens instead of merely consumers. It would specifically target readers whom most ad-funded newspapers avoid: the poor, ethnic communities, urban dwellers and youth.

Profit-driven newspapers, meanwhile, are headed in the opposite direction. The free-distribution San Francisco Examiner openly admits that it delivers to homes only in neighborhoods where the average income exceeds $75,000. This cannot be a sustainable model for engaging neglected segments of the public.


Principal researcher and main contact:

Michael Stoll
School of Journalism and Mass Communications
San Jose State University
One Washington Square
San Jose, CA 95192-0055
(408) 924-3257 office
michael.stoll [AT] sjsu.edu

Partner organization:

Josh Wilson
Editor and Acting Executive Director
Independent Arts & Media/Newsdesk.org
PMB 821, 601 Van Ness Ave., Ste. E
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 861-5302
edit [AT] artsandmedia.net

One thought on “Without Fear or Favor: Building a 'Public Press'

  1. We have had 25 years dominated by business oriented news pushed mainly by the right-wing which has managed to own or control most of the reported stories in our country. Whether it is tv, books, magazines, all of them have come to be dominated by the giant conglomerates that now buy and control the message that is helpful to their cause of even more power. The right-wing think tanks, like Heritage, dream up the agenda and then pepper our media with their slanted view. On news stories, I don’t want to get stories slanted either to the right or the left — just the truth! If the American people had known about what went on inside Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Bushs presidencies, they would have probably voted differently, but how can our people make a logical, rational decision when everything is filed away for years and years in secret files? This is what we must have — the truth. Then people will make the right decision.