Hoyt’s Donation to NYT Story Raises Question: Can Journalists be Both Contributors and Critics?

If the hottest topic in journalism these days is the frantic hunt for new business models, not far behind is the uncharted evolution of journalism values.

As Clark Hoyt illustrated in his New York Times public editor column, the two are often linked.

Hoyt’s column — “One Newspaper, Many Checkbooks” — assessed the Times‘ decision to work with freelancer Lindsey Hoshaw, who has proposed photos and a story about the Garbage Patch, a mess of trash described as twice the size of Texas floating in the north Pacific. Hoshaw is trying to raise $6,000 in expense money to report the story via Spot.Us, the crowd-funding startup financed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Hoyt evaluated Spot.Us as one of many options the Times and other papers are experimenting with to help them cover the cost of news-gathering. He also took what he described in an e-mail as “the unorthodox step, to the say the least” of making his own contribution to the Garbage Patch pitch.

His gift is duly noted among more than 115 contributors to Hoshaw’s expense fund, a collection plate that has swelled to more than $5,000 from the $1,600 in hand before Hoyt’s column appeared on nytimes.com on Saturday night July 18.

In his column, Hoyt raised the issue of how new arrangements with outside organizations might affect the independence and reliability of newsgathering formerly financed by the news organization itself.

But apart from a parenthetical acknowledgment (“I’m rooting for Hoshaw and am kicking in, too”), the public editor did not address how his $50 contribution might affect his own independence and reliability should he be called upon to assess what the Times does with the story.

Personal involvement — including financial investment — is an issue of special concern for ombudsmen, public editors and media critics charged with evaluating works of journalism or experiments in new funding models.

As journalism becomes more personal and more distributed, though, it will become an issue for the rest of us, too. New York Times reporter Jennifer 8 Lee sought and received permission from Times standards editor Craig Whitney to donate $30 to the Garbage Patch pitch. And last December, I contributed $25 to a Spot.Us story about Bay Area journalism before I wrote about Spot.Us in January.

Hoyt’s column, plus a nudge from Poynter Online director Julie Moos, prompted me to dig into the question of the trade-offs involved in journalists putting their money, as Hoyt put it to me in an e-mail, where their judgment is.

Over the past week, I talked with half a dozen journalists and academics about Hoyt’s gift and how the journalistic value of independence might evolve in the digital era.

Among my questions:

  • Did Hoyt sacrifice some of his journalistic independence by contributing $50 toward the expenses of a project he was simultaneously evaluating?

  • How might traditional standards of journalistic independence be reinterpreted in light of emerging economic models for news?
  • Does Hoyt’s contribution reflect a new journalistic value — let’s call it the “involvement” value — that enhances his credibility in ways that independence might not?
  • To what extent is transparency overtaking objectivity as a core journalistic value?

“Journalism economics have always altered journalism ethics,” says Stephen J.A. Ward, author of “The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond” and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In a telephone interview, Ward pointed to the 19th century transition from a partisan press to the commercial mass media supported by advertising — the model that supported American journalism for more than 100 years. Instead of answering to the political parties that paid their salaries, journalists enjoyed the comparative independence provided by a collection of advertisers big enough that no single one called the shots.

Ward, a former journalist who holds the Burgess Chair in Journalism Ethics at Wisconsin, noted that the advertising model “isn’t perfect, either” and that every new business model for news requires its own set of safeguards to preserve core journalism values.

“I don’t think for a minute that the fact that Clark Hoyt gave $50 to Spot.Us means he can’t deliver a good critique of that venture,” said Ward, who pointed out that Hoyt took part in a conference he organized in Wisconsin in May. But he added: “I would prefer that critics of the media stand back from the fray and not get involved with the models they’re commenting on.”

Ward: ‘Journalism economics have always altered journalism ethics’Asked about his contribution, Hoyt said in an e-mail: “I was transparent with readers about what I was doing — recognizing that it was an unorthodox step, to say the least. In this case, once I’d satisfied myself that Spot.Us is a worthy venture, one of many interesting experiments on the way to new ways to support journalism that matters, I saw no conflict in putting my $50 where my judgment was.”

David Mindich, author of “Just the Facts: How Objectivity Came to Define American Journalism” and chair of the journalism department at St. Michael’s College, is not bothered by Hoyt’s contribution.

“I don’t think it crosses a terrible line,” he told me by phone Friday. “The fact that he was so transparent — it’s not like he was doing it secretly.”

Mindich added, “There are two areas that journalists should not be neutral and detached about: one is the health of the news business and the the other is democracy. As we see the decline in the news business, we know that it has an adverse impact on democracy.

“So I think it is OK for journalists to be cheerleaders for democracy and for the health of their business. If it means doing things that we’ve never done before, it’s OK as long as it doesn’t compromise the quality of the journalism.”

In a phone conversation Friday, Hoyt said he was surprised that my e-mail was the only reaction he got about his contribution. “I thought more people would pick up on it,” he said.

Asked how his gift might play out, he said he could find himself needing to evaluate what the Times does with the story he helped fund — a circumstance he described as a “fair problem” that he’d have to resolve.

Tom Rosenstiel, co-author of “The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and The Public Should Expect,” said he talked with Hoyt before Hoyt wrote his Garbage Patch column, but they did not discuss his $50 contribution.

“The principle here is that the journalist should be independent of the people that he or she is covering,” Rosenstiel said in a telephone interview. “Their first allegiance must be to their audience above any other faction.”

Noting that public editors and ombudsmen work in “a strange netherworld” in which they pass judgment on the institutions that pay their salaries, he said Hoyt’s gift “has made his life more complicated.”

But Rosenstiel said Hoyt’s transparency and the small amount (“it would be different if he’d written a check for the full amount”) kept him within ethical bounds.

I also checked in with Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander, who said the nature of Hoyt’s gift — “funding journalism” — made it OK in his eyes. Alexander, who served as Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers before joining the Post earlier this year, pointed to the time and money he has devoted to a variety of journalistic causes. He said he believes his disclosure of such involvement, when relevant, provides sufficient context for readers to judge his work.

In his e-mail, Hoyt said: “Maybe I’ll come to believe I made a mistake, and I’m open to hearing the arguments why that would be so, but, for now, I’m happy to try to give a struggling freelancer a chance.”

I want to believe Hoyt made no mistake, and not just because we’re friends and former colleagues from Knight Ridder days. It’s partly because I’m a stakeholder in the debate by virtue of my own contribution to Spot.Us.

I believe the tug I feel in Hoyt’s direction on this issue illustrates a problem described by Robert Schmuhl, who holds the Annenberg-Joyce Chair in American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame and heads the Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy.

In a conversation last week at Poynter, where he was taking part in a seminar, Schmuhl asked, “Could personal involvement, indeed, personal investment, influence someone’s evaluation of the final product?”

Speaking for myself, I’d have to say, “Yes.”

But I’m not sure how to answer the questions that follow: Does putting some skin the game — getting involved — enhance my credibility with at least some parts of the audience? Do I gain enough in that way to compensate for whatever damage my credibility suffers as a result of my contribution?

In a blog post titled, “Transparency is the new objectivity” and published the same day as Hoyt’s column, David Weinberger argues: “What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position.”

Weinberger, who is author of “Small Pieces Loosely Joined,” does not address Spot.Us or the Garbage Patch story in his post. But his discussion of transparency — and many of the comments attached to his post — reminded me why he’s one of my favorite philosophers of the Web.

Transparency can dramatically increase credibility, “bring(ing) us,” as Weinberger puts it, “to reliability the way objectivity used to.”

But transparency doesn’t get us all the way to trustworthy journalism. Depending on what I learn, transparency about a journalist’s actions and preferences may or may not increase my level of trust.

Like the various business models emerging these days, the most valuable journalism values going forward will be all about hybrids. Not independence or transparency. But as much as possible of both.

As Dan Gillmor’s post from 2005 illustrates, the search for updated journalism values is not suddenly upon us. But it’s time to pick up the pace.

Meanwhile, what’s your view of the contributions issue? Should Hoyt have kept his money in his pocket?

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect affiliation for David Mindich.

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