CHARLESTON, SC — Have you heard about the latest innovative funding model that will save journalism? Allow a group that wants more coverage of the fruits of its labor to pay for you to provide it.
That’s essentially how the News & Record, a paper in Greensboro, NC, and the third-largest daily in the Tar Heel State, is handling an arts group’s wishes to see more arts coverage in the local newspaper.
As N&R editor and publisher Jeff Gauger explained to readers, a nonprofit umbrella organization called ArtsGreensboro, which advocates for the arts and provides grants and other support to arts groups, will underwrite 70 stories—a mix of reviews, profiles, and news articles—about the local arts scene over the course of a year. A News & Record column by ArtsGreensboro CEO Thomas Philion is explicit about the point of the program: the group is putting up the money because news coverage does more than ads to “create interest,” “encourage us to attend certain events,” “drive ticket sales,” and support efforts “to raise awareness about the value and impact of the arts.” At the same time, the contract between the group and the paper stipulates that the News & Record “shall have complete independence and discretion” in the coverage. ArtsGreensboro will pay the paper $15,000, Gauger told me.
To which I say: Don’t sell yourself so cheap!
Obviously, newspapers around the country are in need of money and have had to cut back on coverage. This isn’t the first creative funding arrangement anyone’s come up with—it’s similar in some ways to other deals in public, nonprofit, and even commercial media. Still, it goes further than most.
And even in today’s climate, $15,000 for a daily in a city of 275,000 people isn’t that much money. It’s a figure the paper could probably generate by selling a few more display ads. And even if the paper can’t actually sell those ads, it’s not transformative money, and not the sort of funding that could save a publication from an existential crisis (not that the Warren Buffett-owned News & Record seems to be facing one). It’s a meaningful but relatively modest sum that will allow the paper to provide coverage that it hadn’t made a priority at a time of cutbacks and constriction.
Which might not be something worth risking your credibility on by venturing into ethically murky and unfamiliar funding models.
Back in March, I looked at another funding model that sounded some ethical alarms: support from City Hall for local papers. In one case, a Wisconsin suburb brought a community paper back to life with a direct public subsidy. The move was controversial and led to plenty of debate about journalism ethics, as it should. And the local town council is more likely to require journalistic scrutiny than an arts group.
But in that case, I think there’s a better argument that the subsidy was meaningful enough to warrant the credibility risk. If all goes well, City Hall will have saved that newspaper. (And in that case, after a year the paper will have to stand on its own as a commercial entity, without the public subsidy.)
A $15,000 check for a paper that’s not in distress to hire some freelancers to do a little more arts coverage, though? I’m not necessarily sold on the risk-reward ratio.
To be clear, my point isn’t that the News & Record should have held out for more money. Rather, the thinking is two-fold: First, as I’ll explore below, the details of the Greensboro deal really are more problematic than many of the situations to which it’s being compared, because there’s so little space between the source of funds and the subject of coverage.
Second, even in less problematic arrangements, nonprofit, foundation, and public funding for news coverage does come with its own set of ethical and editorial issues that must be navigated—issues that newspapers haven’t traditionally had to worry about, even if those lines have started to blur in recent years. Those issues can be addressed, just like commercial news outlets can develop ways to cover advertisers. But they do have to be thoughtfully addressed. In the context of an overhaul of a business model—a newspaper’s conversion to nonprofit status, or some sort of long-term hybrid model—it might be worth taking that on. But for ad hoc, supplemental coverage? It might be better to stick to the devil you know.
More than just the arts?
Locally, the arrangement in Greensboro has already drawn criticism—from competitors like Triad City Beat, an 19-week-old alt-weekly, and the N&R’s own former editor John Robinson, who now teaches journalism and runs a media blog. Both critiques raised the question of whether the deal is pay-to-play journalism. City Beat quoted from the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics—“Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two”—while Robinson quoted The Elements of Journalism—“Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.”