Shipwrecked by the sea change in their industry, many journalists are looking to philanthropy and academia as safe harbors. Numerous nonprofit ventures have been launched; others are on the drawing board. We are in the early stages of an era of experimentation, innovation, and cross-fertilization. The movement to nonprofit models has been so swift that we are only just beginning to wrestle with threshold questions about how such arrangements may affect the practice of journalism.
For the purposes of this essay, I will consider the Chicago News Cooperative, but the questions I raise apply to the entire emerging world of nonprofit journalism. The Chicago cooperative is largely staffed by former Chicago Tribune editors and reporters, and it received start-up funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Its board includes, among others, Newton Minow, a prominent lawyer and former chair of the Federal Communications Commission; Peter Osnos, founder and editor-at-large of PublicAffairs Books (and CJR’s vice chairman); Martin Koldyke, businessman and former chair of WTTW public television; and Ann Marie Lipinski, vice president for civic engagement at the University of Chicago and a former editor of the Tribune.
Since mid-November 2009, the cooperative has contributed two pages of local content on Fridays and Sundays to the Chicago edition of The New York Times, with some of its articles running in the national edition. It plans to launch a revamped Web site and is expected to provide content to other outlets, such as WTTW.
With both the Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times having made severe cutbacks, the cooperative assembled its own newsroom to cover the city and state. Putting aside the issue of whether this model is cost-effective and sustainable, a key question is: Will its funding design give rise to persistent inducements to self-censorship?
This question was brought to a point for me by a piece by James Warren in the January 10 edition of the Times. A former managing editor at the Tribune, Warren writes a column that appears twice a week. (Full disclosure: prior to his taking the Chicago News Cooperative column, Warren and I had several exploratory conversations about a possible collaborative journalistic venture.)
Against the background of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s recent political woes—the lost Olympic bid, a deepening fiscal crisis—the theme of Warren’s column was that the mayor and the city have something to be proud of: the University of Chicago.
Warren takes as his text a recent book by Jonathan Cole, the former provost of Columbia University. The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected is an ode to America’s research universities. In conversation with Warren, Cole singled out the U of C as “our closest approximation to the idea of a great university.” Warren closes the column with the observation that “there is reason to be proud and protective” of the university.
From one perspective, this is an unexceptional column. From another, it’s unsettling, when one considers that Ann Marie Lipinski, Warren’s former editor and a board member of the news cooperative, is a vice president at the university. It’s also worth noting that Cole’s book was edited by another board member, Peter Osnos, and published by PublicAffairs, the publishing house he founded.
There is nothing improper about Warren’s column. For sins in past lives, columnists are condemned to struggle every few days to be engaging and provocative. It’s a difficult dance to do. In view of their unceasing hunger for ideas and material, it seems only fair to exempt them from various forms of conflict of interest. In any case, Warren subsequently appended to the column (on the Times’s Web site) an acknowledgment of Osnos’s role as publisher of the Cole book, though not the nature of Lipinski’s position at the university.
But the important question here is not the issue of transparency. Rather, the question is: In view of how the news cooperative is constituted, will it bring sustained critical journalistic scrutiny to bear on the University of Chicago?