Many news organizations will cast aside historic taboos and apply for federal money. Will they need a whole new set of ethics?

As the applications for federal coronavirus relief loans open, newsroom leaders and industry lobbyists have suggested they’ll seek a piece of the pie.

April 3, 2020 and
Category: Ethics & Trust

Local newsrooms are so pressed for cash that historic taboos on asking for government assistance seem to have melted away.

As the applications for federal coronavirus relief loans open, many newsroom leaders and industry lobbyists have suggested they’ll seek a piece of the action, and possibly seek permanent help down the line. Hard times or no, this would be an unprecedented step into new ethics territory for most of American journalism.

Poynter’s business analyst Rick Edmonds and Kelly McBride, the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership, discuss the pros and cons.

Edmonds: When the idea of federal support of local news was broached a decade ago, editors and publishers were close to unanimous in saying thanks but no thanks. Times change, though. Much more local journalism has disappeared; fresh cuts are in progress as we talk. I think there are workarounds that could keep a semblance of arms-length in such a deal, but how about you?

I have a hunch you and I may be in sharper disagreement than when we talked about dropping paywalls for coronavirus coverage two weeks ago.

McBride: I’m all in on government money. As I was 10 years ago when Len Downie and Michael Schudson wrote that white paper suggesting that federal support for local news was the inevitable solution. It’s not like they were two nobodies. Downie is the former executive editor of The Washington Post and Schudson is a noted professor at Columbia School of Journalism.

I’ve done ethics in journalism for 20 years and here’s what I’ve learned: All money is dirty. There is nothing purer about donated money, foundation money, advertising money, sponsorship money or government money. That’s why we need ethics. And NPR and PBS have demonstrated that as long as federal grants aren’t the only source of income, newsrooms can still serve as vigilant watchdogs.

But before we get into the ethical challenges of taking money from the government, explain something to me. Aside from our dire financial situation in journalism, what’s changed? Because things looked pretty bad 10 years ago, but the men and women who were running newsrooms soundly rejected the idea of ever taking government money. I don’t want to make this a generational thing, but I felt at that time like it was a vestige of old days that just needed more pressure before it died off.

Edmonds: Darn. I thought we might have a slug-it-out on this one instead of agreeing. You have it just right on Downie and Schudson. Old-school editors and publishers just didn’t want to go there, thinking that practicing First Amendment journalism requires a wall and an independent/adversarial stance toward government.

Coming out of the recession in 2009, they thought they could go it on their own. We’ve seen how that has worked out. In fairness, that was before Facebook and Google sucked up much of what was left of newspapers’ advertising base after print classifieds had already tanked.

I talked with Downie when he was at Poynter judging a contest earlier this year. He has moved on to a teaching role for Arizona State in Washington D.C. But he agreed that now may be the right time for a fresh look at the good ideas he and Schudson put forward then.

One idea from that paper I particularly like: Adapt the model of the National Science Foundation. Science research is a good and essential thing. But there is not enough of it. The NSF offers a rocket booster of money and has grown to funding a good chunk of the total for advanced scientific research in the U.S. Projects are screened by panels of scientists — so there is no pork barrel or powerful Congress members with their thumb on the scale.

Hasn’t local journalism also become a good and essential thing that there is not enough of?

A hitch is who would be the arm’s-length experts doling out the funding. If you and I and some other retired editors or academics were chosen as a panel to distribute the federal money for local journalism in Florida, I can see some potential problems.

Does the Downie/Schudson plan or something else seem to you a way to go?

McBride: OK, now we get to the ethics.

The federal government is not at this moment offering sustained support for journalism. So it’s premature to build the ethical process that will protect journalism’s independence. I’m certain that when the time comes, we can build that model. For now, the feds have offered limited support for businesses. And journalism is a business.

Let’s dispense with the first question at hand: Should news companies take the money on the table right now? Hell yeah. Hell. Yeah.

And, when you take the money, communicate your intentions. It will be up to newsroom leaders to manage this conflict of interest to both the staff and the audience.

Does cashing the check mean you won’t scrutinize the largest federal disbursement of funds in the history of our nation? Of course not. But you have to say that out loud. It’s possible that as the federal bureaucracy hands out two trillion dollars they will also dole out favoritism, enable corruption or encourage punishment. State your commitment to investigating the execution and impact of this historic action. Disclose the fact that you applied for the funds yourself. Hold your ground as the watchdog that keeps the government in check.

Turns out, your audience trusts you more when you open up about your business and your ethics.

And, let’s not underestimate the monumental nature of this first step. It represents the first brick falling in the historic wall that separates the government and the press in the United States, a unique arrangement that has stood for centuries. Is it possible that in a year or two, when most industries have recovered and local news is still struggling, we’ll ask for a more sustained form of support from the government? Perhaps some of the urgent and permanent (and wonky) suggestions that the very smart Steve Waldman suggests here?

That will require a whole new set of ethics for an industry that has been (except for public media) deathly allergic to the idea of government assistance. Is that where we are headed?

Edmonds: Yes, with an exclamation! That’s where we’re headed, and I hope sooner rather than later.

Great point on the requisite transparency. It hasn’t come naturally to newspaper operations, but this is a great time for them to get out of that particular comfort zone. I admire our colleagues up the street at the Tampa Bay Times for coming clean about how serious their financial challenges are and why they are taking radical action (suspending five days a week of print). Also, what they are asking of readers. Reluctant print loyalists will need to switch over to the website or to a replica e-edition if they want to read the Times’ fine journalism daily.

By contrast, Gannett announced furloughs and pay cuts at 11 a.m. Monday to its 24,000 employees. The company didn’t say a word about the action to readers at its 260 news outlets. We broke the story. The first Gannett version I noticed was a wire story the Arizona Republic published hours later. USA Today caught up with it Wednesday, tucked into a press release addressed to investors.

Suffice to say, while transparency is picking up steam as a news organization value, it is still not in the DNA of the lumbering chains, which profess to be pivoting fast to digital. You need to chase down SEC filings to find out what’s going on with the business side.

I spoke this week with Dean Ridings, chief executive of the newly formed America’s Newspapers (a merger of the Inland Press Association and Southern Newspaper Publishers Association). Ridings said that his team is working with the News Media Alliance to figure out exactly what to ask for from the feds.

They still need to iron out a range of views among their members. I am betting that not everyone is ready to agree, as you say, to the giant step that some form of government help may be a critical solution for the survival of local news.

A short-term bailout fix like advertising that will promote Centers for Disease Control and Prevention messages, or the value of the census to communities is a relatively easy step. Direct investments in journalism will be lots harder — but also needed.

I’ve said my say. I would love to hear yeas, nays or other takes from readers.

McBride: Me too. I’m mildly surprised that you and I both arrived at a point where we could accept government funding of local journalism. And I wonder how we compare with leaders across the industry. Because the truth is, most of those leaders who said, “Over my dead body” a decade ago are still in charge. We’re listening. Drop a comment below or @ us on Twitter: @KellyMcB and @RickEdmonds.

Kelly McBride is Poynter’s senior vice president and the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter. She can be reached at kmcbride@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kellymcb.

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.