Monday, June 1, 2009

The Charles Barkley of Nonprofit Journalism?

As Kaiser Health News, a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, makes its formal launch today, it's worth reflecting on what this new venture can do to advance the cause of nonprofit journalism.

KHN plans "to do in-depth coverage of health policy that informs and explains and that increasingly cannot be done in the mainstream news business," Kaiser president and CEO Drew Altman said in a release this morning.

A remarkable aspect of KHN is the foundation's decision to grant it editorial independence under an advisory board of leading journalists led by former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie. In today's release, Downie sizes up the stakes:

Kaiser Health News is an important initiative in non-profit news reporting, which will be closely watched in the search for new models for in-depth, public service journalism.

But will KHN - can it - be a role model that inspires emulators? Surprisingly, Altman has played down that notion. In a column written May 1, Altman says:

Will KHN be the model for nonprofit journalism? I'm not so sure. That's not our goal, and that in fact is the wrong question, from our perspective at Kaiser.

But he goes on to say:

Our aim is not investigative reports, snarky opinion or blogs, or breaking news headlines that can fit on a cable news ticker or Twitter feed, though we have no problem if KHN sometimes “breaks news.” Nor do we want to cover regular daily health news, a job which will get done without us. ... Indeed it is what is most different and un-replicable about us that is probably most striking. KHN’s objective is simply to report, inform and explain.

NBA great Charles Barkley also tried to lower the stakes for himself, saying, "I'm not a role model." But saying you're not a role model doesn't make it so. Likewise, by any measure, KHN is a slam dunk.

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