Wherein Our Reporter Enters a Parallel Universe - but Escapes to Tell About It

By Susan Q. Stranahan

WASHINGTON — Brian Timpone owns several small weekly newspapers in Illinois. Among them is the Record, an 8,000-circulation weekly that covers Madison and St. Clair counties in the southwestern part of the state. “I’m in the community newspaper business,” says Timpone. His weeklies cover events of interest to those in small towns — “cats in trees, kids going off to college.”

In that regard, the Record is different from the others. It covers lawsuits — and only lawsuits. That’s because it’s partly owned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — which just happens to have tort reform high on its agenda and was willing to pony up $200,000 to establish a journalistic beachhead in a litigious corner of the Land of Lincoln.

So, is the Record a newspaper, or a propaganda sheet pushing an agenda?

Has it blurred the very definition of journalism, erasing the once-solid line that separated objectivity and opinion?

Is it a harbinger of what’s to come in a world where everybody with a computer and an idea can become a media outlet?

That was the subject of a panel discussion here yesterday, sponsored by the Society of National Association Publications, the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the D.C. chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). About 50 people attended the discussion. And based on the questions and comments, almost all seemed to think Timpone has a swell idea — and what they wanted to hear is not how to stop this trend in its tracks, but rather how they can go and do likewise. (Indeed, this reporter may have been the one lone attendee with her hair standing on end at the prospect of a nation of agenda-driven publications financed by silent partners.)

But for wannabes who thought Timpone was on to something, he explained how the Record works. For starters, no cute animal stories — unless maybe Tabby sues its owner for a few million. (Tabby’d have to wait. The court dockets of Madison County are crowded with big class-action lawsuits and asbestos cases.)

Readers of The Record and its Web site get a steady diet of stories like the one this week about the volunteer at a clothing bank who slipped and fell and is now suing the charity for more than $50,000 for pain and suffering.

Timpone started his paper last September to “fill a void” in a county where litigation is booming. “People like to read about a multi-million-dollar lawsuit filed by their neighbors,” he says, making the Record sound no more ominous than a chatty account of news that the local community is really into. Others would describe its mission statement somewhat differently: to push an agenda, pure and simple. For Madison County has been dubbed by the American Tort Reform Association as the worst “judicial hell hole” in the U.S., and recently hosted President Bush at a town meeting about the need for Congress to step in and end frivolous lawsuits. With financial backing from the Chamber of Commerce, the Record has joined in the campaign to curb lawsuits.

Which was just fine with those in attendance at yesterday’s conference. “The only issue here is disclosure,” said Robert Freedman, president of the business publication editors’ group. Readers deserve to know who you are and what you espouse, he said. Added Willie Schatz, of SPJ: “You can’t compromise on disclosure.”

In that regard, Timpone violated the Golden Rule, the panelists agreed. After all, for several months, he kept mum about the Chamber of Commerce’s stake in the Record. Last month, Jeffrey H. Birnbaum of the Washington Post informed national readers of the arrangement.

Disclosure was not necessary, Timpone told his audience. “I knew the paper would be fair and unbiased because I was running it.” The Chamber has no say in editorial content, he explained; decisions about what is published are his. (The Record has one full-time reporter, editor and photographer, plus freelancers. Most of its print readers are local, with 200 mail subscribers. Web visits last week hit 25,000.)

“People will judge for themselves that [who co-owns] the paper isn’t as important as the people who write and edit it,” said Timpone, 32, who describes himself as a conservative who has been active in Illinois Republican politics.

He welcomes opposing views — on the op-ed page. “No one is convinced by a one-sided argument.”

If the Madison County courthouse was so chock-full of incredible stories, why was nobody else writing about them or interested in starting their own local paper, Timpone was asked. Investors often don’t recognize a good opportunity, Timpone explained. He also criticized the St. Louis Post Dispatch, which covers the region, for focusing only on criminal cases. A Nexis search of Post-Dispatch stories over the past several years, however, produced a large number of stories on civil lawsuits, long before the Record arrived on the scene.

Panel members predicted that advocacy journalism will grow rapidly in years to come. Panelist Patrick Chisholm, an online columnist for the Christian Science Monitor, cited three reasons, all of them obvious:

— Technology. The Internet makes publishing simple and inexpensive. Many web-based publications also link to traditional news stories, adding an appearance of credibility — and objectivity.

— Perceived biases of the mainstream media. Some conservative organizations don’t think they’re getting a fair shake and are seeking outlets for their views.

— Changes in the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act. Just as the act gave rise to many so-called “527” advocacy groups in this 2004 presidential campaign, it also opened the door for agenda-driven organizations to get into the media business. Chisholm explained the law’s impact in a story last month. Owning your own media outlet, he wrote, “gives you complete freedom to say anything you want, endorse or oppose any candidate, and spend as much money as you please in distributing your information. What you can’t say in an ad, you can say in the very same newscast or in the very same newspaper.”

“I think there will be a lot more of this in the future,” Chisholm told the audience. Eventually, Congress may get involved to better define who is a journalist, said Chisholm. And that will lead to a “very messy fight,” he predicted.

Freedman concluded the panel with a question: “Ten years from now, will 90 percent of information come from a group with an agenda?” The panelists agreed that it probably will. And they were A-okay with that.

“As long as I know whose viewpoint it is, that’s fine,” said SPJ’s Willie Schatz.

Correction: The above has been corrected to reflect Brian Timpone’s correct age.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.