February 10, 2015

What’s wrong with a state-funded news site?  Well…

Credit: flickr / republicanconference

Credit: flickr / republicanconference

Concept photo of "Just IN," a proposed news site run by the state of Indiana.

Concept photo of Just IN, a proposed news site run by the state of Indiana.

I was a little busy last week, but I did notice one story running by me on Twitter: The state of Indiana was going to open and fund a news site.

All the media folk and web hipsters I follow thought this was a terrible, no-good, very bad idea.

I’ll admit it. I have attended a few too many conference on the need to find new business models for journalism. These sessions had an eerie sameness. You could set your clock by them: about 45 minutes in, everyone would be very depressed, and then someone would pipe up about how “other countries supported journalism” and that government subsidy was really the only way out. This would generally be regarded by the crowd as a pipe dream.

Even the Knight Foundation, which is really, really into giving money to journalism, had its doubts about the idea. From its Knight Commission report of 2011: “It is highly unlikely that in the near term, government will directly fund journalism, especially in a time of strained budgets at all levels. Even indirect subsidies or added tax breaks may be problematic.”

There are plenty of well-known and well-respected government-funded news organizations: the BBC, Canada’s CBC and Voice of America. Even our own NPR and PBS are funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Of course, there are also state-run news organizations that exist largely to repeat the views of the government that funds them—I won’t list them here, but it’s a much longer list.

So what kind of news site was Indiana intending to create? An independent, trustworthy news source, or a government megaphone? Over the weekend, I had a chance to find out. One Indianapolis Star story gave us this tidbit about the workflow of such an organization: Indiana governor Mike Pence, it said, “is planning in late February to launch ‘Just IN,’ a website and news outlet that will feature stories and news releases written by state press secretaries…”

Oh, dear. That’s not good. Not good at all. My friends on Twitter were right: This was a terrible, no good, very bad idea, indeed.

This brings us to the essential question: What’s the difference between a good government-funded news organization, and a not-good one? What makes one trustworthy, and the others not so?

Mostly, ironclad editorial independence.

Any form of funding—any form of funding at all, whether it’s commercial advertisers, philanthropic funders, government sources and even member/donors—can have an undue influence on the end product of a news organization if we don’t think things through.

The problem here is that thinking things through requires a good deal of sitting down, maybe even with a committee. Such a prospect may make you feel as though you’ve done something to anger the news gods. Maybe you started a sentence with a proposition, or buried the lede one too many times. The pressure of deadlines and the news events rushing by may make you just decide to table it for a while. Possibly forever.

We have good news for you: We here at the Investigative News Network did a lot of the work for you. Since we have 100-plus member newsrooms, there are many things that makes it easier for us to do as a group than it would be for each of us to sit down and hammer it out one by one.

Editorial independence is a cornerstone of building a trustworthy, sustainable news organization, which is why we wrote: “We will maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and all sources of revenue. Acceptance of financial support does not constitute implied or actual endorsement of donors or their products, services or opinions…we accept gifts, grants and sponsorships from individuals and organizations for the general support of our activities, but our news judgments are made independently and not on the basis of donor support.”

If you’d like to use INN’s editorial independence policy as a template, feel free to download a copy here.

And what happened to Indiana governor Mike Pence’s idea for a news startup, anyway?  Well, it was stopped before it even got started, and Pence denies he ever had such an idea in the first place.

It’s tough out there for a news startup.