‘Interest Groups’ and the News Media

From the Pew Research Center/Project for Excellence in Journalism comes the welcome report that newspaper editors and TV news directors are not eager to be, or to be seen as being, wards of the state.  This wholesome sentiment will not come as a surprise to most people, but it has to be disconcerting to the “media reform” crowd, which has been clamoring for direct government subsidies or tax breaks for the news media.

According to the study, 75 percent of the respondents, drawn from the ranks of members of ASNE and RTDNA, had “serious reservations” about direct subsidies from the government, and approximately half had such concerns about tax credits for news organizations.  (Note: These figures do not indicate how many of the respondents had “reservations,” only those who had “serious reservations.”)

It’s in the matter of non-governmental support, of the sort that issues from “interest groups” or nonprofit organizations, that the picture becomes a little murky.  According to the report, a whopping 78 percent of the respondents had serious concerns about accepting donations from “interest groups that engage in advocacy of some kind,” while a little over half expressed either serious or “some” reservations about funds issuing from nonprofit foundations.

Buts what about those groups, like the investigative news organization ProPublica, that are funded and led by people with extensive, and clearly defined, political profiles?  Is ProPublica an advocacy group or just a nonprofit news group?  The question takes on a practical significance in light of the Pulitzer recently awarded to ProPublica and The New York Times for their collaboration on a piece published in the New York Times Magazine.

As reported here, the founder, chairman, and principal financial backer of ProPublica is billionaire Herbert Sandler.  Since selling his interest in the bank (Golden West Financial) through which he made his fortune, Herbert and his wife, Marion, have become big-time philanthropists, with substantial sums going to “progressive” organizations like the Center for American Progress and Acorn.

Along the way the Sandlers acquired an interest in bankrolling a news organization that would create “journalism in the public interest,” as ProPublica calls itself, and hired Paul Steiger, then the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, to act as editor-in-chief.

As reported in The New York Times, Steiger, who was then nearing the WSJ’s mandatory retirement age, didn’t know the Sandlers well but regarded them as “civic-minded people who were kind of partial to lefty or progressive causes.”

From its inception in 2008, ProPublica has proclaimed its independence and impartiality — a claim that is undermined by its avowed goal of producing journalism that “shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong,” and by the looming presence of Mr. Sandler who, rather than donate his money as a lump sum and walk away, installed himself as chairman and is parceling out his contributions over time.

At a recent conference of the American Bar Association, the general manager of ProPublica who, like Mr. Steiger, was formerly with the Wall Street Journal, defended the organization against criticism of Mr. Sandler’s role by suggesting that ProPublica, like the WSJ, is capable of producing journalism that is independent of the political views of management.  Unfortunately, this is an inapt analogy.  In fact it’s worse than that — it positively undermines the argument it’s meant to buttress.

This, of course, because the reason that the Wall Street Journal, or any commercial news organization, can produce news stories that are not a reflection of the political views of management is because they, like all for-profit organizations, operate on the principle of maximizing returns to the shareholders, rather than as a forum for the expression of management’s political or ideological views.

But contrast this dynamic with the very different operating principle of ProPublica, or any nonprofit enterprise.  As Slate’s Jack Shafer asked at ProPublica’s launch, “What do the Sandlers want for their millions? … How happy will they be if ProPublica gores their sacred Democratic cows?  Or takes the ‘wrong’ position on their pet projects: health, the environment, and civil liberties?”

In fairness, most of the reports produced by ProPublica to date do not suggest an organization that is marching in lockstep with the progressive agenda.  For the most part they are ideologically value free.  But that’s only half the story.  The real issue with a group like ProPublica is not the kind of issues it does cover but the kind it doesn’t.  As Jack Shafer asked, what kind of investigative pieces will ProPublica do — not counting the rare expose that proves the rule — that discomfit progressives?  That will be the true test of its independence from its benefactor, and of its suitability as a partnering organization with mainstream news organizations.

In the meantime, close your eyes and try to imagine the kind of reception that would have come to Paul Steiger and ProPublica if, instead of Mr. Sandler, the group’s founder, chairman, and bankroller had been someone who, politically, was Mr. Sandler’s polar opposite — someone who had supported conservative or libertarian causes and organizations.  How do you think that would have gone down with the J-schools, journalism reviews, and grant-giving foundations?

Aggregating Newspapers Into Extinction

Hardly a day goes by without another reminder that the demise of newspapers is in full swing.
    
In the Outlook section of yesterday’s Washington Post (Sun., Aug. 2) came the latest, an anecdotal example by Post reporter Ian Shapira titled “How Gawker Ripped Off My Story & Why It’s Destroying Journalism.”  The title pretty much sums things up.
    
Gawker is, in Shapira’s words, “the snarky New York culture and media Web site.”  More importantly, it is a news aggregator, and it had written about and heavily excerpted an earlier story Shapira had written for the Post.
    
At first Shapira was glad for the recognition, until his editor reminded him that he, and the Post, had been ripped off.  Shapira had spent several days researching and writing his original story (and getting paid by the Post to do so).  Gawker repackaged his story in no more than an hour and posted it on its site – for free (or close to it, if you count the time of the poorly paid 29-year-old “independent contractor” who did it).
    
And therein lies the worst-case scenario for the destruction of journalism – which is to say, original reporting.  Newspapers are already being decimated financially by online media sites and blogs.  To the extent that any of these sites offers serious journalism, that journalism frequently consists of stories that have been ripped off, er, “aggregated,” from established newspapers.
    
But here’s the rub: As online aggregators continue to strangle the newspaper industry, they are killing the geese that have been laying their golden eggs – original reporting.  Once the newspapers are dead (or knocked senseless), from where will high-quality journalism originate?  How many online outlets will be able to pay real reporters the way newspapers did?  What will pass for journalism?
    
It’s already happening.  Buyouts have emptied newsrooms of many of their most experienced and knowledgeable reporters, leaving things in the hands of novices.  (A small example: An inexperienced reporter at the Post refers to the Obama inauguration train’s observation car as a “caboose,” and the editor doesn’t know the difference.)
    
Sadly, even the august New York Times is not immune.  A piece by the Times’ Public Editor Clark Hoyt on Aug 1. described how the paper of record’s appraisal of Walter Cronkite contained seven factual errors – something of a record, no doubt, and a feat unimaginable in an earlier era.
    
Yesterday I was sitting with a group of friends and one of them was reading the Sunday New York Times.  He asked me if I wanted to see it, and proffered a selection of unmistakably slim sections.  He added apologetically: “The Times isn’t what it used to be.”  No, my friend, it isn’t.  But neither are the rest of them.
    
I don’t know where all of this is going to end, but I do know that we’re well on the way.