Chicago's newspapers could find a lifeline to solvency and a return to social purpose in a new kind of business structure called an L3C, or low-profit limited liability company.
Why is that?
Illinois foundations have $350 billion in assets and they are required to invest 5% of that, or $17 billion, in programs that serve a social purpose each year. If the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune were to be reborn as L3Cs -- a structure that encourages foundation investment while allowing a profit --they could tap into some of that $17 billion. With foundation heavyweights on board, other investors seeking a decent, but not excessive, return might contribute to the coffers.
Bill SB 239 creating the L3C hybrid was introduced to the Illinois legislature Feb. 4 by Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago). Prospects for the bill are good, supporters say.
The L3C structure was signed into law in Vermont in 2008, and into law in Michigan and the Crow Nation in January. Legislatures in Georgia, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon are also expected to pass L3C legislation this year.
In Washington, D.C., draft legislation called the Program Related Investment Promotion Act of 2008 is being considered by staff in the Senate Finance committee. While many types of businesses--from community yoga centers to affordable housing--could benefit from L3Cs, the successful creation of newspaper L3Cs is largely contingent on passage of the Federal law, which would effectively expand charitable purposes to include newspapers.
The L3C structure plays well in Peoria where the Peoria Newspaper Guild, and a coalition of
Journal Star employees and community leaders have been quietly looking for two years at alternatives including co-ops and employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) to operate the Peoria Journal Star.
The one idea that really clicked was the L3C.
"We are looking at long-term ownership that puts journalism first," said Jennifer Towery, President of the Peoria Newspaper Guild and also Neighbors Editor for the Peoria Journal Star. "[The L3C] just resonated. It has so much potential."
Because it can tap into foundation money, an L3C is sustainable, and because an L3C business must meet a social purpose, it realigns newspapers with their mission of community service.
"It insists that serving the readers is your mission," she said. "If it doesn't serve the readers to cut your newsroom staff you can't do it."
While good news judgment is essential to accomplishing the social return, the L3C structure has significant sweeteners to generate returns for investors.
"The participation of the foundation, which is seeking high social return but low monetary return serves as a catalyst for high investor return," said Marc J. Lane, a Chicago-based attorney who authored the Illinois L3C legislation and last year launched Chicago's chapter of the Social Enterprise Alliance, which believes in investing in businesses that do well by doing good. "You can end up with a blended financial return that is fairly modest but skewed toward the private sector investor."
"Capital is formed," Lane said. "Social purpose is achieved."
The L3C is different from a typical nonprofit because it can earn a return, but the social purpose must trump the financial purpose.
Lane says that he expects the Illinois law will pass with little debate. "I see it sailing through," he said. But even if it doesn't, Illinois news gathering organizations could incorporate in Vermont or other states that have legalized L3Cs.
The creator of L3Cs, Robert Lang, CEO of the Mary Elizabeth & Gordon B. Mannweiler Foundation, says the Federal legislation is essential for any of these good news scenarios to play for newspapers.
Lang, an economist and businessman by trade, devised the L3C structure to address the problems he was having while trying to invest family foundation money in a sustainable and effective way.
"Historically, the IRS has not accepted newspapers as nonprofits," Lang said. "The Federal legislation mentions L3Cs specifically and it lists newspapers specifically."
The problem newspapers are dealing with today is that investors turned news-gathering into Wall Street product.
"The Peoria paper still makes money," Lang said. "The problem is it cannot make enough profit for all the games normal for-profits get involved in."
But in the L3C scenario, newspapers can make "enough" money.
"What we are looking at is the newspaper as a self-sufficient entity," he said.
"It will not be a high profit entity."
The idea of the Newspaper L3C is to bring back those journalistic contributions like neighborhood reporting, music reviews and book sections and make them part of the community service. And ads are part of the mix too.
"I think there is a lot of viability to newspapers still," Lang said.
Could the L3C save Chicago's newspapers?
"Somewhere you still need a newsgathering organizations," Lang said. Newspapers still drive much of the news circulating on the web, he added.
"I'm not saying that we can save the Chicago Tribune and make it what it was 10 years ago," he said. "But at least the money that's made today can go toward improving the product not paying off leveraged debt."
Meanwhile back at the Journal Star, which has an owner and is not for sale, Peoria Guild President Towery says, "We are all interested in finding models that others can replicate. It's not saving the paper, it's saving journalism. "
"One of the bright spots is that [newspapers] have lost so much value that it is now feasible for communities to buy their newspapers."