The Current is going nonprofit. Here’s why

About a year ago, I got a random message from a friend at a web development company. “Some guy I work with wants to help you with your newspaper thing,” he said in a text. I had just announced taking over The Current brand from my old employers and wasn’t sure what, if anything, would come of the trial balloon I floated in the air.

Next thing I know, I’m eating patacones at Patacon on Bertrand with a perfect stranger and getting a website built. Cory Birdsong, a web developer with BBR Creative, volunteered his time to help me build this thing, pretty much no questions asked.

Lafayette is full of Corys. (No offense, Cory, you’re one in a million.) It shouldn’t have been surprising to me that I so readily found people wanting to help. And since then, an uncountable number have pitched in to give The Current a fighting chance. If you’re reading this, that number includes you.

Over the last 14 months, The Current has been an experiment in building a new kind of local media. Digital first. Member supported. And now we’re pursuing a new moniker: Lafayette’s first nonprofit news organization. Let me tell you why.

It’s the next logical step in building a public-powered organization, programmed entirely for public service. We’re in the process of making the conversion right now. In the meantime, we’ve partnered with AOC Community Media to facilitate the transition.

This is an important evolution for The Current, and one that I’ve imagined taking since the beginning. So why are we doing it?

My hope in creating The Current was to build something that was both responsive to and reflective of community needs, that delivered information on the basis of what matters and not according to what sells.

That approach is great for journalism but terrible for profit margins. Not that there’s anything wrong with making money, but the core proposition of for-profit journalism — selling you candy so you’ll eat your vegetables — has gone haywire in the digital era. Irrelevant headlines, clickbait, dime-a-dozen opinions are at the heart of the mistrust that has beset the entire industry, particularly at the national level. These are the natural consequences of what drives traffic, and thus revenue, in the digital age.

Even selling candy isn’t so profitable for news organizations anymore, leaving many legacy publishers to cut costs to stay in the black. Cost cutting in the news business means fewer journalists and less journalism. And that’s a big problem.

A nonprofit model flips the entire proposition and puts local journalism where it always belonged — in the category of public service. From the beginning, we’ve re-invested every dollar back into The Current’s core mission of exploring and explaining Lafayette in the 21st century. Formally structuring the The Current as a nonprofit writes that practice into the company’s DNA for posterity.

Forget all the wonky business model talk, though. There is a much deeper motivation here. We’re building an institution that ought to inform and inspire Lafayette’s future generations. A nonprofit, in my view, is the best way to do that. And that institution needs to be truly local.

In an age of media consolidation and desiccated newsrooms, having ownership with a vested interest in Lafayette’s future is crucial. As a nonprofit, we’ll take that one step further. The Current won’t just be locally owned by a dude who spent his 20s touring in indie rock bands — it will be owned, in a very real sense, by Lafayette.

So what does this mean for you? Well, editorially, nothing. Geoff Daily, Leslie Turk and the half-dozen freelancers we work with will continue to deliver the thoughtful, curious journalism you’ve come to expect from The Current.

And financially, not much changes either. We’ve always counted on membership dollars to help keep the lights on. In fact, 80% of our existing paid membership joined The Current Plus because they believe in the work we’re doing, not because they got perks. (They do get perks, though.) Now, through the help of our fiscal sponsor AOC Community Media, you can make tax-deductible contributions. There are two ways you could do that. One, by signing up to join The Current Plus. Or, two, by becoming an individual or corporate sponsor. To do that, just email at [email protected].

The nonprofit road gives us access to emerging national philanthropy for local journalism. There’s a recognized crisis in local news, and corporate leaders and major foundations are mobilizing to do something about it. Facebook and Google alone have announced $600 million in funding support for journalism between the two of them, no doubt as atonement for the utter devastation the platforms have wreaked upon digital advertising revenue. The Institute for Nonprofit News claims 200 members and reports 300 nonprofit news organizations nationwide. The space is maturing at the right time.

The convergence of community support and national urgency gives us reason to be optimistic about a nonprofit, public-service future for local news. But I won’t sugar-coat it; this is going to be a difficult road.

The good news is, you don’t have to be like Cory and work in the wee hours of the night customizing our website to make a difference. Even just $25 a year will go a long way to keeping our work independent and sustainable. When it comes to preserving local news, every bit counts.

If you have any questions about this change, or you’re just looking for a reason to chitchat, feel free to email me. Here’s my email address again: [email protected].

Running The Current for the last year has been a privilege, and one I don’t take for granted. Thank you for reading and supporting our work. We quite literally couldn’t do it without you.