Debate Over the Nonprofit Newspaper Model Lands in the Senate

Conor Clarke in the Atlantic's business blog today, reports on Senator Benjamin Cardin's plan to make it easy for newspapers to become nonprofits. But do we really want newspapers that promote the agendas of private foundations?

The nonprofit model has been floated ever since it was revealed that newspapers are doomed, and most point to the Poynter Institute, owners of the St. Petersburg Times, as the best example of nonprofit news done right.


The proposed legislation, called the Newspaper Revitalization Act, would allow dying papers to operate as nonprofits for educational purposes under the U.S. tax code, giving them a similar status to public broadcasting companies. In return, newspapers would be unable to endorse candidates and legislation. There's really no problem with that part, notes Clarke. "Opinion is cheap and plentiful on the web."

The bigger problem is how to get from here to there. The message of Yale investment guru David Swensen's suggestion about this "wasn't the abstract notion of turning a newspaper into a non-profit; indeed, a handful newspapers and newswires (the Guardian, the AP, the NYT, the St. Petersburg Times) have come up with hybrid or ostensibly non-profit ownership structures already. The problem was endowing a newspaper like a university." To run the New York Times, for example, would require an endowment of $5 billion. "Making this happen requires more than a law," writes Clarke. "It requires an angel."

When Big Think interviewd John Temple, former editor of the Rocky Mountain News, he dismissed the potential of the nonprofit model, arguing that the profit-motive catalyzes innovation, sparks editorial energy, and does more to serve the broader public agenda, without private political motive. What do you think? Can a nonprofit model salvage the Fifth Estate, or do newspapers need to evolve into something different, but equally profit-driven, to survive?

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
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  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.