Commentary

News ‘philanthropy’ is a bad idea

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The Indianapolis Star now has itself a team dedicated to “racial equity,” which includes, thanks to a grant from a nonprofit called Report for America, a reporter who will be tasked with covering “inequity in social services, immigration, cultural institutions, the legal system, education and access to health care — particularly as it affects Black and Latino Hoosiers.”

The cynic in me thinks this sounds more like sociology than journalism, with the Star editors taking a deep dive into Critical Race Theory and concluding that institutional racism is so threatening to the fabric of society that they must deplore it in the strongest possible terms, earnestly and often.

My more rational reaction is that this is merely one more failed attempt in newsrooms’ decades long effort to gin up interest among those who have had no interest in reading newspapers and never will. Back when I was a novice reporter, people like Jay Rosen called it “engaging the reader,” as if there were hordes of subscribers and would-be subscribers just dying to tell us what we should do for them.

But the Star’s dive into inclusiveness is just a superficial symptom of journalism’s current distress. What should be of deeper concern is the part about “thanks to a grant from a nonprofit.”

Journalism philanthropy, it seems, is the wave of the future. As traditional sources of revenue dry up, newsrooms are desperately searching for new funding sources, and foundations are jumping in to fill the void. The problem is that these sources have an agenda, so how can a newsroom accepting the money not heed that agenda? It will be one more reason, as if we need one, to suspect that we are not being served unbiased, objective news.

Every grant will provide a filter through which information is passed. The more grants, the more filters and the less chance readers will be getting what they need and want, rather than what the philanthropists think they should need and want.

But won’t this be just like the tension that existed between the newsroom and advertisers when advertising provided the bulk of revenue?

Not quite. Advertisers were selling goods and services and wanted to make a profit. Foundations are selling ideas and want to make a difference. Advertisers wanted to change people’s buying habits. Foundations want to change their hearts and minds. One pursuit fosters greed and bullying, the other zealotry and proselytizing.

There is a world of difference between a store owner trying to persuade an editor to downplay crime reports in the neighborhood and a non-profit dictating an editor provide more “equitable and inclusive coverage.” One is trying to get something extra for his money. The other is merely expecting what he has clearly paid for.

Frankly, advertisers needed newsrooms at least as much as newsrooms needed them, especially in one-newspaper towns like Wabash where I started. There was no local TV operation, just one small radio station, no Internet or social media. You wanted to sell your merchandize, you advertised in the paper. Trying to push the publisher around was a futile endeavor.

Even in bigger cities with competing news organizations, there were enough advertising dollars to go around, and the competition was to get them by offering either the biggest or the best audience.

Radio stations did it by offering bulletin headlines between the latest hits, TV stations with blood-and-gore footage littered among soap operas and situation comedies, newspapers with a mix of what readers a lot of what they wanted and some of what editors thought they needed -— hard news on the front page, “Dear Abby,” crossword puzzles and the comics inside.

Now, advertisers seek targeted audiences rather than broad coverage, and savvy consumers read online reviews of everything before making a purchase. People glimpse the news in their Facebook feeds and find amusements through social media forums. They complain bitterly on Twitter, then look around and wonder where the sense of community went.

It’s not just that the print media are dying. The whole structure of advertising-supported news is collapsing, and no one has yet figured out how to fill the void.

I don’t think philanthropy-supported journalism is the answer. The Star might win a few converts, but it will lose far more readers who simply want unfiltered, useful news.

 

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.

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