The Hands That Feed

Managing conflicts of interest in the era of nonprofit journalism
May 3, 2010

The need to manage real and perceived conflicts of interest, and the self-censorship that can accompany them, has always been a part of journalism, whether it was a question of angering a major advertiser or exposing the shady dealings of the publisher’s golf buddy. With the emergence of nonprofit news outlets, from ProPublica to the St. Louis Beacon, the delicate dance that managing these risks often entails gets a bit more complicated.

Unlike a traditional newsroom, which never has just one advertiser supporting it, these nonprofit outlets tend to rely—at least initially—on a single funder or small handful of funders. And while a typical advertiser’s interests are fairly easy to discern, foundations (and universities, which are part of the nonprofit equation in some cases) are invested—directly and otherwise—in a range of issues and policies, not all of which are immediately obvious. This last bit is further complicated by the fact that in recent years foundations have shifted away from general-operating grants—basically a lump sum for the grantee to use as it sees fit—to targeted grants for projects that align with the foundation’s specific interests.

CJR relies on foundation support, so we know something of the challenge these newsrooms face. We’ve had our credibility impugned based on who funds us (for evidence, see this issue’s Letters pages), and we often wrestle with whether and how our editorial goals fit with the interests of potential funders. Managing this challenge is not always simple or easy.

Ultimately, your credibility will be judged based on the work you produce. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need to think these things through. “This is a precarious moment,” says Charles Lewis, who was a pioneer of nonprofit journalism when he founded the Center for Public Integrity in 1989. “It is a noisy, experimental time, and it is important to set clear standards.”

Andy Hall and his colleagues at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism are attempting to do just that. On April 30, at a conference in Madison sponsored by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, they presented a list of best practices for managing conflict-of-interest risks in nonprofit newsrooms. (The full document is available here.)

Here are highlights from their list:

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Diversify the revenue stream, both in terms of the number of funders and their ideological bent.

Be clear about the mission, so that funders understand what they are supporting. “We had one major foundation turn us down because they were looking for specific public-policy outcomes,” says Hall. “They realized they couldn’t attach those strings to us.”

Proximity matters. The closer the funder is, physically, to the news outlet it funds, the more complicated the relationship. Hall likens it to the situation that small-town newspapers have always faced, in which the biggest advertiser may live next door to the editor.

Transparency—real transparency, not just the rhetoric of it—about where the money comes from is crucial.

Hall, a veteran investigative reporter who started the center in 2008, describes the list as a working document that will evolve. At the other end of the equation, we encourage foundations to be sensitive to the needs of accountability journalism. In other words, don’t get in this game if you are simply looking for a platform for your ideas; get in it because you believe in the centrality of independent journalism to a free society.

Whether nonprofit newsrooms will be a significant part of the future of journalism in this country, or just a bridge to something else, they are a promising development in the effort to sustain serious reporting. We hope they are here to stay, part of a mix of funding models, both nonprofit and market-based, to take root. But as they evolve, they need to sweat the details. Journalists—even those in nonprofit newsrooms—are still nothing without their credibility.

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.