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Jan. 11, 2010, 10 a.m.

A cautionary tale: The Fiscal Times and Washington Post

Enterprise reporting partnerships with online news organizations are in vogue at major newspapers these days, and arguably no paper has been more aggressive in pursuing them than the Washington Post. But in his ombudsman column Sunday, Andrew Alexander takes Post editors to task for a series of failures that plagued its most recent partnership, with a new organization calling itself the Fiscal Times.

The Fiscal Times is not a nonprofit, but it has a lot of the markings of one. It is backed by a wealthy philanthropist, investment banker and U.S. commerce secretary Peter G. Peterson; it is staffed by established journalists, including former Post political writer and editor Eric Pianin; and it claims to run an independent, nonpartisan, non-ideological newsroom. The main difference is that the Fiscal Times is run by a privately held company controlled by Peterson and his son Michael.

So what went wrong?

On Dec. 31, the Post ran its first story from the Fiscal Times, a newsy report that support was building on Capitol Hill for a bipartisan commission to tackle the nation’s chronic deficits and mounting debts. As it happens, this is Peterson’s pet issue and the focus of the Peterson Foundation.

According to Alexander, problem No. 1 with the story was that it quoted the president of the Concord Coalition, but failed to mention that the group receives funding from the Peterson Foundation. It also cited data from a study supported by the foundation but again failed to note the foundation’s backing, according to Alexander.

Alexander goes on to cite other problems with the story, including balance and timing. But the big foul-up in his book appear to be the transparency issues surrounding Peterson’s support for issue advocacy, and I couldn’t agree more.

Is is possible for a deeply opinionated philanthropist to keep his nose out of a newsroom of his own making? I do think it’s possible. Look at ProPublica, funded almost entirely by Herb and Marion Sandler, who also launched the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. But transparency is key to credibility — and ultimately, to the viability of any news organization, for-profit or nonprofit.

What does transparency look like? Mostly, it resides with the intent of the publisher, and it might be expressed as a newsroom oversight board or other firewall structure that keeps newsrooms insulated from financial pressures. But to the outside world, it means disclosure of anything that might even hint of a conflict.

In this case, the Post fell down on the job, according to Alexander. But the Post has been around for a long time, and it certainly will recover. The Fiscal Times — like so many of the new news organizations that have sprouted up in recent years — has not developed a similar reservoir of credibility. The question is whether any governance structure, process or procedure can provide an adequate substitute.

POSTED     Jan. 11, 2010, 10 a.m.
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