Déjà Vu Not: Washington Post, Kaiser in Promising New Venture

The Washington Post‘s ill-conceived stab at access-peddling last week provided the journalism world with a painfully public model of how not to deal with the economic pressures facing newsrooms.

Less visible — and way more promising — is the Post‘s involvement with an intriguing new model for news fueled by a foundation.

Both models involve health care, and each involves an organization that includes Kaiser in its name but no affiliation with the other. 

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The Post reported last week that Kaiser Permanente, the health insurance company, had agreed to pay the paper $25,000 to sponsor a July 21 “salon” about health-care reform at the home of Post publisher Katharine Weymouth. (Kaiser later told the Post it had made no final decision about the sponsorship.) In a letter to readers in Sunday’s paper, Weymouth canceled the event and apologized for what she described as “a new venture that went off track.”

Also last week, the Post published an enterprising article about hospital costs by Joanne Kenen. The byline credit reads “Kaiser Health News,” and an unusually detailed italicized note at the end of the article reads:

This story was produced through a collaboration between The Post and Kaiser Health News. KHN is a service of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health-care-policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Welcome to the new economic order of news, where some new ventures go up in smoke as others gain traction.

The growing trend toward foundation-provided health news is documented in this comprehensive report (PDF) published last week by former Post staffer Maralee Schwartz.

“I can’t tell you how surprisingly comfortable I became with it in the end.” — Maralee SchwartzSchwartz, who took a Post buyout last year after nearly three decades at the paper, examined nonprofit journalism as a Fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politcs and Public Policy. Her 35-page analysis, “Getting it for Free: When Foundations Provide the News on Health,” opens with Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli explaining to colleagues earlier this year “why the Post had used two stories from something called Kaiser Health News.”

Brauchli, who last week said his newsroom would have nothing to do with “salons” that compromise “our independence from advertisers or sponsors,” has endorsed certain foundation-provided journalism as part of “the wave of the future,” according to Schwartz.

In addition to Kaiser, Schwartz examines in detail some of the health care coverage examples reported last October by The New York Times. As documented in recent links to Poynter’s Transformation Tracker, as well as in David Westphal’s guest post in this space last week, foundations are playing a growing role in journalism.

Schwartz reports significant journalistic contributions by such organizations as The Center for California Health Care Journalism, the Kansas Health Institute News Service, and Health News Florida.

Kaiser Health News, set up earlier this year by the Kaiser Family Foundation as an independent news operation, forms the spine of Schwartz’s report about health care coverage.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) produces original reporting and provides it without charge to such news organizations as The Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, NPR, McClatchy and The New Republic.

The terms of each relationship are different, with the Post-Kaiser collaboration apparently the most tightly integrated.

“The bottom line is that I have total editorial control at the starting point and the ending point,” Post health editor Frances Stead Sellers said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I know the editors [at Kaiser], I respect them and I go to them with questions.”

Sellers described a thorough vetting process for the arrangement before the paper published its first Kaiser story earlier this year, and pointed out that the first story was written for Kaiser by a former Post reporter who had taken a buyout, Sandra Boodman.

“It was a useful way of finding out how this relationship might work,” Sellers said. “It kind of broke us all in.”

Kaiser Health News is headed by veteran journalists Laurie McGinley (previously with The Wall Street Journal) and Peggy Girshman (formerly of NPR and Congressional Quarterly). Serving as a kind of publisher is Matt James, who is senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

James, based in Menlo Park, Ca., says he leaves all editorial decisions to the Washington-based editors, and that the foundation has erected “a firewall” to block any influence over editorial decisions.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, James pointed out that there is “absolutely no connection” between Kaiser Permanente, the insurance company, and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The two trace their histories to the fortunes of industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, but operate entirely separately.  

Asked about the company’s involvement in the salon controversy, he says: “Obviously, it was unfortunate that the one organization to be caught up in this messy situation was Permanente.”

He also acknowledged that some readers have been confused about relationships among company, foundation and news service.

Given the importance of even the appearance of possible conflict of interest in readers’ minds, differentiating itself from its Kaiser cousins is likely to be an ongoing challenge for KHN.

“But the proof really is in how it all plays out with the editors and the integrity of the articles,” James said. “If we just continue to produce good work with journalistic integrity, [confusion over the various Kaisers] won’t be a problem.”

The issue of independence is at the core of Schwartz’s analysis of the journalistic initiatives by Kaiser and other health-related foundations. Just as a foundation-supported news operation must make editorial decisions separate from whatever agenda the foundation pursues, news organizations must exercise their own independent judgment about the journalism produced by outside services.

In a telephone interview Monday, Schwartz said she began her study skeptical of the foundation/journalism linkage. But by the time she finished, she said, “I can’t tell you how surprisingly comfortable I became with it in the end.”

She said was impressed by the foundations’ commitment to independent journalism as well as their “commitment to serving the community.”

In her report, Schwartz frames the issues for journalists involved in such ventures like this, “For the newspaper editor, and for readers, choosing Kaiser’s journalism or that of other nonprofit funders raises questions that go to the heart of the journalistic enterprise and its role in American democracy: Does the very availability of content about a pet issue of a particular foundation mean that coverage will be skewed? Does nonprofit journalism mean lower standards? How does a newspaper safeguard integrity and independence?”

Poynter has collaborated with Kaiser on seminars about health-care coverage for several years, and Kaiser’s James met with several of us at Poynter in March to discuss the new news service. James told us that extensive research among health care journalists revealed a critical need for such a service to fill some of the gaps left by cutbacks in health coverage and staffing in newsrooms around the country.

KHN provides its editorial policy here. KHN’s national advisory board is chaired former Post executive editor Len Downie and includes Poynter president Karen Dunlap.

In Tuesday’s interview, James said he believes such coverage areas as the environment and education provide “real opportunity for a foundation,” but only if it’s willing to follow strict guidelines.

“It has to be done the right way,” he said. “It can’t be done with a foundation that’s pursuing advocacy. The foundation can’t be trying to dictate content.”

He added: “One of my goals is to persuade other foundations they can move into this area and another is to forestall foundations from doing this the wrong way.”

In her report, Schwartz quotes former Post colleague Ted Gup about the risk of skewing coverage by including coverage — even when professionally-produced — simply because it’s available without charge to the news organization.

She interviews journalism ethicist Ed Wasserman about issues raised when sources of information on any given topic become authors of the coverage itself.

And she quotes Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark, who says journalism has entered a period of “interesting failure … a time of great experimentation when old, old standards are re-imagined and reinvented; a time when many news organizations find the need to lower their standards rather than not publishing at all.”

Schwartz also interviews editors at the Post, the Inquirer and other papers about their decisions to publish copy provided by the outside groups.

She concludes with quotes from the Post‘s Brauchli, including this one: “If the outside organization understands how journalism should be practiced — standards, ethics, approach — that will ensure society is better served and preserve the profession.”

Disclosure: I’ll be exploring areas similar to Schwartz’s topic as a Shorenstein Fellow beginning this fall.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the relationship between Kaiser Permanente and Kaiser Health News. The two share historical roots but operate entirely separately.

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