Donors, non-profit journalism and new investigative models

The second session at the New Journalism, New Ethics? conference at UW Madison looked at the ethical issues in creating and operating non-profit investigative newsrooms.

The session was based on a report, “Ethics for the New Investigative Newsroom” (PDF). The report looked at issues such as who is an acceptable donor and how to safeguard editorial independence.

The director for Center for Journalism Ethics at UW-Madison, Stephen Ward, introduced the session by providing a broad overview of the challenges, such as the relationships with donors.

“The take-home message was that you have to defend the integrity of the journalism,” he stressed. While these issues have existed for years, Ward said they are forming in new and different ways.

Andy Hall followed up with his experience as executive director and reporter at non-profit start-up Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

So far, most of its $350,000 funding has come from large, out of state groups. But Hall questioned about what issues might arise when seeking funds from local donors, who might also be the focus of investigations.

The Center already lists the identity of its donors and will be posting its fund-raising policy on its website.

Hall said the Center had decided not to accept money from political officials or parties, or from people whose reputation could harm it integrity.

Transparency and credibility

Brant Houston of the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois followed up by stressing the importance of transparency on funding and spending.

This was key to the credibility of a journalism non-profit.

Houston talked about being transparent not just about where the money was coming from, but also what you were spending your money on.

He also raised the issue of government funding, noting that many media organisations outside the US take official funding and yet feel able to criticise the government.

View from foundations

Carol Toussaint,  foundation executive and member of non-profit boards, Madison, Wisconsin, offered a different perspective.

She looked at it from the viewpoint of foundations, explaining how funders have been providing funds for years and have their own best practices.

Foundations see themselves as change agents, said Toussaint, similar to journalism non-profits. She urged journalists to talk to foundations and get to know them.

But she cautioned about taking too much from one donor.

Back to credibility

The view from the journalism practitioner came from Martin Kaiser, editor and senior vice president, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Kaiser recalled how when he started in journalism, it was a one-way street. He talked about how the news landscape had become increasingly fractured and politicised.

He also stressed the importance of credibility.

“The credibility of the news room and what we’re putting out have never been more important,” he said.