Nonprofit Newsrooms Under Suspicion Just Because We Said So

Nonprofit newsrooms need to live up to standards!

• On the issue of transparency, it’s not enough to just list
funders’ names. Nonprofits should make their funding information
prominent and easily accessible, said Charles Lewis, founder of the
Center for Public Integrity. As Christa Westerberg, an attorney for the
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, says, 501(c)(3) organizations
must provide a copy of their application for nonprofit status and IRS
Form 990 immediately to anyone who asks in person and within 30 days to
any written request. May as well be proactive and put it out there for
all to see.

• Nonprofits should maintain walls between journalists
and donors the way for-profit papers have established walls between
editorial staff and advertisers.

Sigh. Here we go again. Here we go: It is not anybody’s job to live up to your standards but yours. And this constant hand-wringing about how we’ll know who is trustworthy and pure is starting to become so rage-inducing I can hardly read it anymore. This thing came out last week and I put off even beginning to write about it until today because … really? REALLY?

This is a new thing, this need for news organizations to be transparent about where their money comes from? Because we would never, ever, EVER need transparency from, say, the Washington Post:

The Post has been soliciting lobbyists to pay from $25,000 to $250,000
to underwrite off-the-record “salons” at the home of publisher
Katharine Weymouth that would provide access to administration and
congressional leaders and the paper’s reporters and editors.

Or fromthe Chicago Sun-Times:

Before news of the payment scandal forced Black and Radler, the former
Sun-Times publisher, to resign last fall, the two had pocketed more
than $400 million in Hollinger money over seven years–95 percent of
the company’s profits in the period, the report said.

Or from The Atlantic, for that matter:

—————Forwarded message—————From: Mosser, Kimberly
Date: Sun, May 2, 2010 at 10:12 PM
Subject: RE: Photos from The Atlantic/National JournalWHCDWeekend Kick-Off Dinner
To: “Mosser, Kimberly”
Correction: The evening was underwritten by Audi, Shell and AstraZeneca.

Or the for-profit-yet-on-the-InterwebsPolitico:

Glover Park’s clientshave included Pfizer and Coca-Cola, firmsPolitico reports on, just as it writes on the Glover Park group. Earlier this year, Politico ran thisop-ed by Victoria Esser, Glover Park’s managing director. Glover Park linked to the story on its website.

Those places don’t need to worry about people being suspicious of where their money comes from, or who is supporting them, or paying for their drinks at parties. Those newsrooms don’t have anything to prove. Why not?

I think we get to the real point when we get here:

Following up on the concept that is better to report on yourself than to have others do it for you, Toronto Star
deputy investigations editor Robert Cribb predicted that the ethics of
nonprofit newsrooms will come under heightened scrutiny from mainstream
news organizationsas nonprofits grow and compete with legacy media.

The ONLY reason we are suddenly so concerned about the credibility of nonprofit newsrooms (which, by the way, have existed for more than a hundred years in this country alone, so thanks for showing up to notice the sun came up this morning) is that they’re gaining on their competitors. If they weren’t a threat, all this worry about their ethics and their standards and who pays for their morning coffee wouldn’t exist.

And, you know, just acknowledge that, and I’ll be a little less annoyed by your asking others to measure up to a mark you invented, which will grow ever higher by the day as they close that distance between them and the media they’re vying to replace.

A.

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8 thoughts on “Nonprofit Newsrooms Under Suspicion Just Because We Said So

  1. Dan Lavoie says:

    But the recommendations from CPI and the Wisc Freedom of Information Council are both good ones. Part of the reason many legacy outlets feel so sleazy is that they DON’T cop to their potential conflicts of interest. Nonprofit journalism should be modeling good behavior (and it is accepted modern practice for nonprofits of any stripe to make their 990 accessible on the web).
    Of course legacy outlets have a vested interest in holding nonprofit newsrooms to a level of scrutiny they would never hold themselves to. But that doesn’t mean we, as consumers, shouldn’t expect that level of transparency regardless. Nonprofit journalism is gaining ground precisely because legacy outlets feel like they’re swimming in the same swamp as those they cover. I’d rather see nonprofit newsrooms proactively hit back at that perception, rather than complaining about being held to standards that are, at the end of the day, THE RIGHT standards.
    Also, Hi!

  2. Athenae says:

    Hi Dan! How’s tricks?
    I have ZERO problem with issuing a set of guidelines about general transparency. That’s fine, and some parts of the full report are actually interesting. However, there’s a real lack of knowledge about the practices of most nonprofits that I find surprising, for example, that it is best practice to make 990s available and that they’re able to be acquired through the state or through any number of funder databases already.
    When we act like the need for transparency is a new problem, as if conflicts didn’t exist before ProPublica set up shop, and now only exist in the realm of the new it puts, I think, an undue burden on start-up organizations. Those organizations will, let’s face it, have to prove their credibility the way any rookie reporter has to: by being right, over and over and over again.
    A.

  3. Dan Lavoie says:

    Absolutely. But transparency is actually pretty cheap and easy…and gets you credibility points quickly. I’m not sure it creates an undue burden to throw a link to a PDF of your 990, or simply have a page that lists your funders. Is it unfair for publishers overseeing legacy cesspools to demand this accountability from nonprofit startups? Sure. But the problem is not that nonprofits have to be transparent, it’s that legacy outfits don’t.
    Just because the calls for transparency are clearly self-interested and questionably timed doesn’t do much, in my mind, to diminish their importance. Transparency always makes for better journalism.
    And Brooklyn is treating me good. Check out http://www.PromiseNeighborhoodsInstitute.org for the latest venture I’ve been working on. Ending poverty one block at a time…

  4. Dan says:

    Hi A. Around 10 or so years ago a local used car dealer who called himself Mr. Big Volume had some kind of “FREE CAR!” offer/lottery/sale. I don’t remember the exact details. What I DO remember is that it literally caused a riot. Made CNN. Overhead helicopter shots, a New Jack City littering of cop cars and flashing lights, the works.
    Mr. Big Volume ran full page ads every day in the local rag. Next day’s paper? Not a word. And I remember too – because after seeing it I remember thinking, “I can’t WAIT to see how they try to spin this tomorrow!”
    So, for profits: Care to list all your advertisers and the amounts they spend?

  5. Dan says:

    Oh, and just a hunch but I think you’ll be glad if you downloadthis.

  6. MapleStreet says:

    Ya mean the transparency that the for-profit Faux / Murdoch empire have established?

  7. pansypoo says:

    for profit is special.

  8. MapleStreet says:

    “The Post has been soliciting lobbyists to pay from $25,000 to $250,000 to underwrite off-the-record “salons” at the home of publisher Katharine Weymouth that would provide access to…”
    Is it just me, or does this sound like it is built on the model of a house of ill repute?

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