Foundation Journalism and Caesar’s wife

Timm Herdt
Timm Herdt writes on California policy and politics. He formerly covered the Capitol for the Ventura County Star

As a career newspaper man, it has been with unspeakable pain over the last decade or so that I have watched the demise of the institutions that made it possible for people to know their communities, indeed to exist as communities. Local newspapers, large and small, have either disappeared or become shells of what they once were, with decimated staffs and precious little news space.

I get the economics, understand the impact of Digital Age, and appreciate that only fogies sit around and lament the passing of the way things used to be. The important question now is whether there is model that will sustain print journalism, a model other than the for-profit, publicly owned newspaper companies that simply cannot maintain enough revenues to satisfy stockholders.

In my view, the most promising model is the public radio model – non-profit news operations in various communities, each independent, generating revenue from advertising and print subscriptions, supplemented by a broad base of small-dollar donations from consumers of their digital product.

Another model is foundation-funded journalism, such as the Sacramento-based CalMatters. The model basically works like this: a handful of wealthy individuals and foundations create a non-profit entity to produce news content. That content is made available to existing newspapers at no cost.

It is a noble enterprise, but it’s not a model that will save community newspapers. For one, it does nothing to address that lack of resources that prevents a local newspaper from meaningfully reporting on its own community.

For another, foundation-funded journalism is inherently subject to the same credibility concerns that cause the Bernie Sanders crowd to distrust the “corporate media” that they believe is influenced by the political biases of owners and publishers. Witness Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Review-Journal, or the San Diego Union Tribune under the former ownership of Doug Manchester.

Because foundation journalism is by definition reliant on the ongoing generosity of a small base of donors, its work will inevitably be clouded by suspicions of donor bias. If the donors are, say, the Koch brothers or George Saros, the suspicions would be prominent and pronounced. In the case of other donors with known ideological points of view, the intensity of suspicion diminishes only by degree.

It is unsurprising, then, that an ongoing series of articles by CalMatters on the subject of public employee pensions is drawing complaints of bias from the labor unions that negotiate those pensions on behalf of workers.

The journalists on the CalMatters staff are top-notch; many are respected veterans of the Capitol press corps. Their ethics and integrity are well established.  Still, that does not make the organization immune from questions about its credibility.

Taken together, the pension articles seem premised on a point of view: that adequate funding of the pensions is in jeopardy, that benefits are excessive, that taxpayers are at risk.

Of course, that is the nature of any in-depth news project. Reporters and editors gather facts, interview experts, and then determine a narrative that fits what they believe the facts show – with appropriate context and balance, of course.

In this case, however, one can understand how some might question whether the narrative was developed before or after the facts were gathered. Included on the relatively small list of donors posted on the CalMatters website are a former aide to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who relentlessly sought to downsize pensions, a partner at Goldman Sachs, the chairman of Wal Mart and his wife, the granddaughter of Wal Mart founder Sam Walton.

All of those entities are indifferent at best, and hostile at worst, to organized labor and the process of workers collectively bargaining for retirement benefits.

Foundation journalism by its nature can never meet the standard required of Caesar’s wife – above suspicion.

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