Does Nonprofit Journalism Avoid Critical Coverage of Funders?

March 19, 2012; Source: Poynter Institute

Is this commentary published by Poynter a little pushback against the nonprofit model of journalism? The author, Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon, draws on a blog posting by journalist Stephen Robert Morse suggesting a couple of problems with the nonprofit business model of the Austin-based Texas Tribune. According to Beaujon, Morse argues that regular newspaper journalists now have to compete with “bigger name Tribune journalists whose work newspapers can run for free.” He also contends that a nonprofit newspaper like The Texas Tribune, dependent on sponsors and grants, is not likely to “do anything that might cheese off its sponsors.”

The issue of contention is the nonprofit’s potential independence from its sponsors and donors. Morse points to Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey’s glowing New York Times profile of Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp in which Ramsey neglected to disclose that Texas A&M is a sponsor of the Tribune. Tribune Editor in Chief Evan Smith said the failure to disclose was a rare lapse and cited an example of a Tribune reporter writing a negative article about a Trib donor. Smith was quoted as saying, “Anyone who exerts pressure on the Tribune will have their check personally returned by me.”

Morse isn’t quite convinced. He writes, The idea that a non-profit news organization is not beholden to interests that affect for-profit news organizations (corporations, advertisers, etc.) is also flawed. Because wealthy donors subsidize The Trib, it may not create the type of journalism that could harm its financial future. Smith has a strong financial incentive not to ruffle any feathers: According to The Texas Tribune’s 990 form, filed with the IRS in 2010, Smith made a $320,625 base salary and $13,038 in additional compensation.”

We can’t comment on stories The Texas Tribune might or might not have covered in relation to its funders, but it is true that we have seen scant criticism and investigation of foundation grantmakers in some of the other, newer nonprofit investigative newspapers. Is that simply because reporting on the nonprofit and philanthropic sector is not all that interesting and important? This is what The New York Times seemed to suggest when it recently shed its full-time nonprofit beat. Or are nonprofit journalism sites willing to risk alienating a current or potential funder by reporting something that they won’t like or that won’t make them look good?

Would The Texas Tribune do a critical piece, if warranted, on some of its $25,000-to-more-than-$100,000 foundation funders and their principals, such as the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, the KDK-Harman Foundation, the Still Water Foundation, the Susman Family Foundation, the Booth Heritage Foundation, HPI Real Estate Services and Investments, the John & Florence Newman Foundation, the Harold Simmons Foundation, the Tobin Endowment, and the Winkler Family Foundation? We can be just about positive that Smith and Ramsey would laugh at the idea that they wouldn’t do those articles. Nonetheless, structurally, do you think nonprofit journalism’s reliance on philanthropic donors and sponsors leads to a tendency to tone down potential criticism of funders or even of the entire spectrum of philanthropic support?—Rick Cohen