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Indy For-Profits– A New Structure for Activist Media?

Independent media is associated with a nonprofit structure. Democracy Now! is just one of many that uses its nonprofit nature as a selling point, stating on their website: “Democracy Now! is a tax-exempt, non-profit organization funded entirely through individual donations and grants from foundations. We receive no corporate underwriting or government support.” The donation structure engages audiences, allowing them to tangibly contribute to outlet they support. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s one of the first guards against bias from advertisers, an issue that has been plaguing journalism since its inception.

But could the nonprofit/indy media pairing be overrated? In his 2008 lecture at Ithaca College, Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall explained that the nonprofit structure can also “limit independence” by leaving outlets desperately asking for funding from readers and foundations. Marshall closed his speech with a rather controversial statement for an independent media icon: “I actually think that for the independent media sector to be independent and vital in a deep way, it needs to be not only rooted in the nonprofit sector, but again, in for-profit terms.”
In one regard, independent media is designed for activist work, for saying what those in power don’t want said. But it makes sense that Marshall is questioning its history of nonprofit structure; recently, many activists in other fields have been doing the same. The Economist covered for-profit activist company Virgance in 2009, which was structured as a platform for distributing social justice campaigns. (The company closed in January 2014.) Steve Newcomb, Virgance’s co-founder, told The Economist that a for-profit activist sector is important because “being a for-profit company enables [Virgance] to grow faster and achieve more social impact than a non-profit, because it can afford to pay its employees competitive salaries and can raise capital from investors, rather than relying on donations.”
Having qualified employees and being financially independent from potentially bias-inducing investors are extremely valuable assets for any organization devoted to exposing and dismantling those in power, and that includes independent media. Marshall’s point might become less controversial over time as more activists realize the benefits of being an independent for-profit.
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