Wednesday, July 28, 2010

WikiLeaks and a Failure of Transparency

In all the kerfuffle this week around WikiLeaks and its disclosure of 91,000+ documents in its Afghan War Diary, it seems to me that a fundamental irony has been overlooked: A nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to imposing transparency on reluctant governments seems to think the rules don't apply at home.

Go to the WikiLeaks "about" page, and you can see what I mean. There's lots of rah-rah about rooting out corruption, freedom of the press and why the site is "so important." But there's not a peep about organizational governance, where their money comes from or where it goes.

In some cases, such opacity is by mistake. But in WikiLeaks' case, it is by design. Just two weeks before Afghan War Diary was released, Wired published an enterprising story on WikiLeaks' finances. The reporter, Kim Zetter, tracked down a vice president of the Berlin-based Wau Holland Foundation, which apparently handles most contributions to WikiLeaks. The story provided some idea as to the scale of the WikiLeaks budget -- the group needs about $200,000 a year for basic operations -- but the vice president offered only a promise of more disclosure next month. And from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange? No comment.

I understand the need to protect whistleblowers and other sources. But when it comes to the group's finances, can't they cut out all the James Bond stuff? I don't need names and addresses of donors, but can't we have a little more transparency and accountability?

This isn't just a matter of idle curiosity. Love or hate WikiLeaks, the organization is doing more than its share to transform journalism. And it is doing so in dramatic fashion by fully unharnessing the power and creativity of the nonprofit model. As Ruth McCambridge noted in the Nonprofit Quarterly earlier this week, WikiLeaks "may be the soul of nonprofithood."

If that's the case, then the stakes involved in WikiLeaks' own willingness to operate with transparency are quite high.

Perhaps the most-repeated criticism of the nonprofit model in journalism is that an organization that relies in whole or in part on philanthropy will become beholden to its funders and will compromise its journalistic principles in order to ensure continued funding.

That's simply not the case -- not any more than the newsroom of a for-profit newspaper would have a self-imposed ban on negative stories about car dealers, department stores and other (remaining) major advertisers.

But the secrecy invites speculation. A July 3 post at from a "WikiLeaks insider" alleges that the organization had become overly dependent on "keep alive donations" from left wing politicians in Iceland. It warns ominously: "Sooner or later it will be payback time. And payback will be in the form of political bias in WIKILEAKS output."

WikiLeaks does its part to fuel the speculation and undercut its credibility as well. In the Q&A on its "about" page, WikiLeaks raises this question: "Is WikiLeaks a CIA front?" I'll save you a click back and tell you that the answer is no. But do we really need this kind of drama from an organization that presents itself as an honest broker of information? Of course not. It only serves to undercut WikiLeaks' credibility.

If WikiLeaks really wants to promote transparency, it should start with its own operations.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Diane Rehm's Take

In case you missed it, here's a link to Diane Rehm's recent radio show focusing on nonprofit journalism.

There are some familiar themes -- the astounding numbers of cuts in newsroom jobs, for example -- but Rehm also pushed hard to get her four guests to tout the benefits of the nonprofit model in addressing readers' distrust of news media.

The best answer came from Ken Doctor, who said the nonprofit model can help newsrooms pursue a "purer mission in a way" than traditional, for-profit media that always have had to balance news judgment against commercial considerations. The key, however, is transparency, Doctor said. "Readers can come to a better idea of exactly what they're reading," he said.

Another good answer came from Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune, who talked about the benefits of membership in generating engagement and support from the community the nonprofit serves.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Texas Tribune: "Lone Star Trailblazer"

If you're not on the Texas Tribune e-mailing list, you might not have seen the profile that appears in the latest issue of Columbia Journalism Review. Here's the link, and enjoy the read, courtesy of Jake Batsell.

The profile is notable for a couple of reasons.

One is the level of detail it offers in examining the challenges that face the regional nonprofit news organizations that have cropped up around the country the past few years. Batsell spent a lot of time with the Tribune's staff and leadership, and it shows. He picks apart the business model as well as he does the journalism.

Another is that the piece asks (and to the extent possible, answers) the right questions in the right context. For example, Batsell, like the leadership of the Tribune, examines on how the enterprise can be sustained for the long haul. (Answer: They still don't know, but they're adding to the playbook every day.) Questions about whether the Tribune harbors the economic and/or political biases of its funders aren't any more relevant here than they would be in a profile of a newspaper or magazine, and they're treated in the context they deserve.

One piece of news (at least for me) that got buried: The Tribune is talking to the New York Times about providing content for a regional edition, much like it has with the Bay Citizen in California and the Chicago News Cooperative.