Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Perception Issue

Perhaps the most pervasive criticism of the nonprofit model in journalism is that it allows a wealthy person or people to control a media outlet, putting out bias and opinion under the guise of news. So when I see somebody address that red-herring complaint with reason and logic, I like to point it out.

In a Q&A in the current edition of Nonprofit Quarterly, Mark Jurkowitz of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism compares the nonprofit model with the traditional newspaper advertising-and-subscription model, he and concludes that the beef about influence is "a perception issue."

That is, the problem is not with the revenue source, but how a newsroom is governed within the larger organization that acts as publisher -- and the extent to which its independence is protected. He says:

In any given situation, you can establish procedures and standards for minimizing the risk of conflict. Newspapers have always set up firewalls separating the editorial product from the publisher.

And another thing -- Jurkowitz notes that all media are perceived as being biased, according to polls. So the problem is not so much the business model as it is the news industry's ability to persuade readers that it can report events or conduct investigations without bias. And as Alan Mutter suggests, in the online world, news organizations might generate more readership if they actively insert a point of view in their reports.

I agree with Mutter that the old newspaper model of objectivity won't translate online. But I do think there should be a set of standards for the conception, reporting and writing of anything that its authors deign to call journalism. "News" feeds through Twitter and Facebook are great fun, but ultimately, I think readers will gravitate to sources that have proved themselves trustworthy over time.

So if there is a call to action here, it goes to those who work for and support nonprofit news outlets. Collectively, they need to address not just the perception problem, but also to face down their own institutional biases. The latter will depend upon their willingness to build organizational structures and cultures that improve upon those that have come before.

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