Thursday, April 29, 2010

Transparency key in new journalism

"Revenue promiscuity" is the catch phrase coined by John Thornton, chairman and financial maven at The Texas Tribune, the nonprofit investigative news site focused on government in the Lone Star State.

It's meant to convey the idea that money for a costly effort like investigative reporting should be sought "everywhere and often", and not from just a couple of deep pockets.

But as the nonprofit model becomes one of the new forms of journalism to succeed legacy media, how do you keep the source of the money pure?

It's a question set to be discussed Friday at an ethics conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Note the day's sessions will be streamed and blogged live.)

The college, in collaboration with two others, this week released a report, "Ethics for the New Investigative Newsroom," that will be part of the discussion. The document grew from a January meeting on the topic by academics and practitioners. (UW-Madison has a Center for Journalism Ethics in its school of journalism.)

According to the report, "Nonprofit [investigative] journalism changes the way journalism is done; alters its economic base; and develops new linkages between journalists, funders, and audience. ... Importantly for ethics, the distance between journalist and funder in the nonprofit newsroom is reduced."

And that's a new playing field for journalists accustomed to the Chinese wall that has separated them from the revenue -- traditionally brought in by advertising departments -- that supported their work. "From whom will the centers [newsrooms] accept funding? Which donors might threaten the center's integrity?" the report asks.

It offers a number of "best practices" in the realm of funding and ethics, with transparency the watchword: in raising money, in spending money, in vetting donors, in setting editorial policies, in collaborating with other old- and new-media ventures in reporting projects.

Certainly one way to be up-front with news consumers -- increasingly skeptical in what some call today's "media revolution" -- is to lay out ethics policies and funding sources in great detail.

The Texas Tribune's Thornton, who makes his living as a venture capitalist, offers some of that insight in a letter (and pat on the back ) posted on the nonprofit's website.

While backers of the project had a goal of raising $3.5 million by the end of launch year 2009, $4 million actually was raised. The site has 1,500 individuals, or "members," who donated an average of $98 each, and 68 corporate sponsors who pledged $2,500 each. (A print publication, Texas Weekly, and "large contributions from wealthy families and foundations" also support the site.)

Some businesses might cringe at letting out that kind of information, but not Thornton. Why? Because within three years he wants readers contributing $3 million, or about a third of operating costs.

How's that for being promiscuous?

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