Thursday, October 01, 2009

Non-profit News

I disagree with this article on Slate about non-profit news.

The piece discusses the rise of foundation-backed not-for-profit news organizations, warning that philanthropists will dictate the content of the news.

I spent more than a year writing for Iowa Independent, and it was a great experience. Probably one of the most enjoyable jobs I've ever had. Being paid to be a blogger is awesome, obviously. Add to that a once-in-a-lifetime Iowa Presidential Caucus free-for-all, and you have a journalist's dream job.

The downside was that they didn't pay well at all. But that's the only downside, really. It was awesome.

So I suppose I have as good a vantage point as anyone to comment on the Jack Schafer article on Slate, which has as its basic premise that the benefactors of non-profit news organizations are behind a curtain, pulling the strings of their writers. Here's the main point, citing somebody named Harry Browne of the Dublin Institute of Technology:
"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.'"

I can only speak for myself and my own experience with Iowa Independent, but I must say I was always really free to cover just about anything I chose and write however I wanted. I was assigned to cover agriculture and rural stuff, but that's a pretty normal beat. And you can still go to Iowa Independent and look up any of the stories I wrote.

There were, of course, several times when subjects were suggested to me from above as a possible story idea. Nothing out of the ordinary, though, and I always appreciated the help with ideas. Our story ideas were always bounced around in conference calls, but that's no different from any news organization's editorial meetings. And just like a newspaper, there were copy editors, too. But for the most part the copy editors only fixed mistakes and improved the language of my articles rather than the gist.

I was never told I had to write any story. Now we certainly had a progressive point-of-view as a news organization, and by the way, there's nothing wrong with that, either. There's nothing wrong with having a unique voice in journalism. Every news organization has one. It is what it is. And there's always plenty of room for more voices in the public discourse.

A newspaper or a radio station or a website or any news organization, whether it's a for-profit business or a foundation-funded non-profit, has a point-of-view. What's more important is whether it builds the trust of the public -- and that can only be accomplished by presenting the facts honestly and building a reputation of fairness. The age-old question still must be asked by the audience: Is this information trustworthy or not?

I say there's a need for lots of different forms of journalism in the world, and lots of different ways to fund it. As we move further forward into the Information Age, the old systems must evolve. More people are empowered every day to share in the free flow of info. That's a good thing, I think.

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