Bad news arrived in a deluge this week for Chicago-based newspaper company tronc, when the publisher's flagship paper, the Chicago Tribune, was forced by federal antitrust regulators to forgo taking over the Sun-Times in favor of a labor union-funded group promising to revive the struggling institution and keep it independent of tronc.
And in Maryland, the tronc-owned Baltimore Sun announced it was closing the doors of City Paper,the forty-year-old alternative newspaper it purchased in 2014, saying declining ad revenue “continues to be a challenge."
Meanwhile back in San Diego, the Union-Tribune, the much-diminished San Diego daily acquired two years ago by tronc — then known as Tribune Publishing — from Republican kingpin Doug Manchester, continues casting about for ways to keep the shrinking paper alive as the internet relentlessly continues to subsume readers and advertisers.
Wednesday morning, July 11, brought surprise front-page word from U-T editor and publisher Jeff Light that the paper would be entering the controversial business of online fundraising, causing skeptics to wonder whether it is easier for the beleaguered brass to change the subject rather than address chronic newsroom weaknesses and ongoing staff depletion.
"Today I am proud to announce a partnership between The San Diego Union-Tribune and GoFundMe, the world's largest crowd-sourcing platform," said a message from Light in a box on Page One.
"Readers of our website will now be able to take action to make a difference in our community. If you see a person you want to help or a cause you want to support, you can do so, easily and securely. A link on each digital story will allow anyone to start or join a fundraising campaign."
"This isn’t an effort by the Union-Tribune to endorse any cause or to ask for money for the people we write about. The campaigns will be driven entirely by our readers," added Light.
According to a story on the business page, "Beginning today, nearly every story published on the Union-Tribune’s website will include a 'start a campaign' button that, when clicked, will take readers to a Union-Tribune GoFundMe landing page where they can start the process of raising funds for a person, cause or organization related to coverage."
"That could mean fundraising for a down-on-her-luck local, pooling money to help get the word out about city initiatives or crowdfunding to buy out the contract of a sports team’s head coach.”
"GoFundMe takes a 5 per-cent cut of funds donated to campaigns for revenue and overhead. It will be splitting its earnings 50-50 with the Union-Tribune for campaigns that originate from online stories," according to the story.
The paper promises to "donate all of the money each year to scholarships or nonprofits."
California political hopefuls using GoFundMe have included Libertarian Angela McCardle, who ran for congress in April for the 34th District seat vacated by state Attorney General and Xavier Becerra won by Democrat Jimmy Gomez.
"I need $1,700 to file my registration, $5,000 for my candidate statement and additional cash to pay for marketing, advertising, campaign consulting and extra sets of helping hands." She ultimately raised $6,025 of $7,500 from 92 donors, according to the posted results.
"Our dedicated team of experts works around the clock to vet campaigns and investigate anything suspicious," says a note on the U-T web site from GoFundMe. "When members of our giving community of more than 40 million users see something that’s not right, they tell us and we look into it."
But GoFundMe's policies about what is allowed on the site have long been a work in progress, with the crowd-funding website banning a fundraising campaign for two bakers fined $135,000 for declining to sell wedding cakes to same-sex couples, says an April 2015 account in the Daily Signal of Gresham, Oregon.
"Instead of prohibiting 'campaigns in defense of formal charges of heinous crimes, including violent, hateful, or sexual acts'—as it used to—GoFundMe now bans 'campaigns in defense of formal charges or claims of heinous crimes, violent, hateful, sexual or discriminatory acts,'" the paper reported.
"We are also informing users that GoFundMe reserves the right to share the content from a deleted campaign with law enforcement, donors or stated beneficiaries who wish to file a police report about any misuse of fundraising proceeds," said the company's blog.
Fraud and other funding controversies still plague the operation, according to a June 22 report by Boston television station WCVB about the arrest of a phony brain cancer victim.
"As a result of her claims, a GoFundMe account was opened in her name. State police said that account collected nearly $28,000 in donations."
The issue is prevalent enough that it has inspired freelance journalist Adrienne Gonzalez of Richmond, Virginia to launch the GoFraudMe website and a fraud tracking Google Map to watchdog the operation.