The more I read about how non-profit funding is going to save journalism, the more I wonder about the cost. As grant-supported news operations like Pro Publica and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Reporting proliferate, they’re not just changing journalism’s business model but also raising questions about conflict of interest.
The ad-supported model has its own issues, of course. Advertisers have been known to pressure newsrooms for favorable coverage and some newsrooms have been all too willing to blend news and sales. But the old business model kept any one “buyer” from having too much influence. Can newsrooms really maintain editorial independence if they have just a handful of powerful funders?
A new report from the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests the answer is yes, but only if the news organization works at it. The report summarizes the results of a conference held earlier this year and it’s full of useful nuggets from nonprofit journalism experts.
One area of agreement was on the need to decide early on who you will and won’t take money from. Many but not all of the journalism centers represented at the conference drew the line at government funds. How would they rate other potential donors?
One strategy is to develop criteria for a “creepy list” – criteria that rule out obviously objectionable donors, such as felons and suspected mobsters. Then the center can deal more carefully with cases of non-creepy donors who may or may not satisfy criteria. Centers should avoid accepting funds from “deceptive” organizations that do not do what they claim to do.
Former IRE executive director Brant Houston writes that “transparency is a key to maintaining credibility and that when donors are not disclosed it creates problems.” The report suggests these “best practices:”
- Have as much transparency as possible, and be explicit as possible when you don’t on why you don’t (a parallel to rules for using anonymous sources.)
- Be transparent about the expenditure of donations and whether the spending is directed or limited by the donor.
Chuck Lewis, who founded the Center for Public Integrity, said that in the end, the journalism speaks for itself. “Ultimately it’s the work,” he said. “If you continually do first-rate work and people are impressed as hell, and it’s deep reporting and it’s quality, and you do it month after month, year after year, pretty soon you start to get a track record.”