A Whole New Ballgame

What are the pros and cons of the "self-reporter" approach?

Last week, the Los Angeles Kings hockey team hired Los Angeles Daily News sports reporter Rich Hammond away from his ten-year stint at the paper to write for the Kings’ Web site. The Kings, who hired Hammond because of declining news coverage of the team, say they are giving him “complete autonomy” to cover the team as he normally would.

As The New York Times’s Richard Perez-Pena described the team’s thinking:

If your business depends on free publicity from newspapers, what do you do when the papers can no longer afford to send reporters to cover you? In professional sports, the answer, increasingly, is hire your own.

This trend has implications for journalism beyond the sports pages (and Americans’ disinterest in hockey). A recent James Rainey column in the Los Angeles Times took up the topic, naming other examples of outside institutions who have hired their own reporters in order to expand their shrinking news coverage. For example: the L.A. County Supervisor recently hired a former L.A. Times editor and veteran Newsweek correspondent to produce content for his Web site that will “go beyond flackery”; the Consumer Attorneys of California hired former L.A. Times investigative reporter to head up a news reporting enterprise on topics including tobacco, medical negligence, product safety, and corporate political donations. Rainey dubs these so-called independent journalists “self reporters.”

Which raises the question: How different is the donation-funded journalism model? There’s a lot of grant money out there that goes toward funding non-profit journalistic coverage of specific topics, including here at CJR. Of course, commercial news has interests, too. As Jack Shafer quotes one media researcher in a recent column on the pitfalls of the nonprofit business model, “both nonprofit news and commercial news often find themselves constrained by the hidden agendas of their masters. Just as commercially supported journalists often find themselves dispatched to investigate the owners’ hobbyhorses, nonprofit newsers are frequently assigned to “chase after the idiosyncratic whims of funders.”

We’re all for more people willing to pay journalists to do the work of holding powerful people and businesses to account (including sports stars and sports franchises). But there is one subtle difference between grant-funded journalism and in-house reporters. They purport to independently cover the exact same institution that cuts their paychecks.

As former sports editor and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism professor Sandy Padwe told the Times regarding the New York Islanders, who hired their own “self reporter” last September, before scaling back their funding for the arrangement this season:

It bothers me; there’s too much of a downside to it. There’s too much of a risk that the coverage will not be objective.

As Hammond was quoted in the Times:

I understand people are going to have doubts. The proof is in the product.

So what should that product look like? If this is a trend; as more journalists get laid off, more news coverage declines, and more and more outside institutions decide to hire their own in-house, allegedly independent journalists, what, as readers, should we expect to get? What are the pros and cons of the self-reporter approach? And how, exactly, will the articles that Hammond and others like him produce differ from what you might find in an independent source?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.