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.