Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Advocacy Organizations And Journalism

One of the enduring criticisms of the nonprofit model in journalism is that nonprofit newsrooms are somehow suspect because they are funded in whole or in part by foundations or other organizations that have an advocacy function. This criticism is leveled most often by people who think that a financial transaction -- charging subscriptions or taking advertising -- somehow is the only way of cleansing journalism of bias or subterfuge.

So for those who adhere to the transaction-equals-legitimacy view, here's a real kick in the head: As it turns out, one of the finest for-profit newspapers in the country, The Washington Post, has been owned and operated for years by .... an advocacy organization.

That news comes to us courtesy of The Washington Post itself -- though you had to look hard to find it. It was deep inside a lengthy examination of the Post Co.'s Kaplan educational subsidiary that was published in the April 10 Sunday Business section.

The upshot of the story is that the Post Co. developed Kaplan into a cash cow that serendipitously helped the company through hard times in its core newspaper business. An important part of that work involved lobbying Congress to keep financial aid flowing through Title IV -- work that Post Co. Chairman Don Graham took on personally. From the article:

Graham has taken part in a fierce lobbying campaign by the for-profit education industry. He has visited key members of Congress, written an op-ed article for the Wall Street Journal and hired for The Post Co. high-powered lobbying firms including Akin Gump and Elmendorf Ryan, at a cost of $810,000 in 2010.
What's wrong with Graham's advocacy? Absolutely nothing. Because he did it the right way. Graham, like all good publishers, knows the value of maintaining an independent newsroom. So there was no pressure on the newsroom to write about the merits of the for-profit education business.

There are all kinds of pressures that can impact a newsroom and its coverage of any given topic. But the key is in how they are managed and, ultimately, deflected. In this regard, Graham did his part by staying out of his newsroom. Should the Post newsroom have taken initiative and done some digging on the for-profit education industry before Kaplan's recruiting practices were cited by regulators? Perhaps. But as so many newsrooms do, the Post took its cues from other societal watchdogs and, eventually executed well.

The question that remains: If the Post Co. can advocate for its interests before the government and maintain an award-winning, independent newsroom, why shouldn't other advocacy organizations be trusted to do the same? In the last analysis, every company, foundation, membership group or club advocates for something. The bottom line is, they have to earn that trust -- just as the Post has done.

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