CALmatters is Part of a Changing Media World

Dave Lesher
Editor and CEO of CALmatters

In regard to your column in Fox and Hounds last Thursday on CALmatters, as a veteran journalist, Timm, you are trained well to “follow the money.” In Watergate, those were the instructions that led reporters to the White House connection. In journalism today, it points to a vital question about how newsrooms maintain credibility as they work to replace the money lost when the traditional business model collapsed.

At CALmatters and other non-profit journalism centers nationally, philanthropy is filling the gap. Your article is wrong in saying CALmatters is much different than the public radio model, which you call “the most promising.” We actually share many of the same donors and we even seek joint funding with public radio. But you’re right to look at the independence of the journalism, which is a core value built into CALmatters. It’s reflected in the “top-notch … respected veterans” you describe at CALmatters as well as in our board of directors, which includes several executives from major American news organizations. It’s also affirmed by the reproduction of our work in most of California’s major newspapers and radio stations. 

In fact, your article doesn’t mention that the Los Angeles Times and Capital Public Radio are collaborators with CALmatters in this ongoing series of stories about the state’s pension debt. Finally, our journalistic integrity is reflected in a statement of editorial independence, drafted by the Institute for Nonprofit News, that is signed by all of our donors over $10,000. That statement is our modern recreation of “the wall” that newspapers have traditionally maintained between their journalists and advertisers. It means our donors have no say in our editorial content, period. And thankfully, our donor list is not “relatively small,” as you say. We have more than 100 donors identified on our website representing a broad spectrum of interests and politics.

As a topic for journalistic attention, California’s debt from retirement benefits to public employees also stands out as a major policy challenge for state and local governments. State payments for public retirees are expected to double during Gov. Brown’s tenure, costing nearly as much as the state’s prison system. Most major cities are also paying about 15 percent of their budgets on retirement costs, taking a bite out of public safety, parks and roads. It’s an important story, but not an easy one to tell. So we’re very proud to participate since September in this ongoing series with the Los Angeles Times and Capital Public Radio. Together, sharing reporters, editors and costs of the story, we have produced a series of stories better than we could separately.

So as we talk about evolving models that preserve the integrity and the quality of difficult journalism, I think you’ve found a very good example, Timm.

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