HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Where you get your news depends on where you stand on the issues
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
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.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Where you get your news depends on where you stand on the issues
A new study by the Pew Research Center examines how Americans’ news consumption habits correlate with where they fall on the political spectrum.
Light everywhere: The California Civic Data Coalition wants to make public datasets easier to crunch
Journalists from rival outlets are pursuing the dream of “pluggable data,” partnering to build open-source tools to analyze California campaign finance and lobbying data.
Ebola Deeply builds on the lessons of single-subject news sites: A news operation with an expiration date
Following the blueprint of Syria Deeply, the new Ebola-focused site hopes to deliver context and coherence in covering the spread and treatment of the virus.
What to read next
1020
tweets
The newsonomics of the millennial moment
The new wave of news startups is aiming at a younger audience. But do legacy media companies have a chance at earning their attention?
803A mixed bag on apps: What The New York Times learned with NYT Opinion and NYT Now
The two apps were part of the paper’s plan to increase digital subscribers through smaller, targeted offerings. Now, with staff cutbacks on the way, one app is being shuttered and the other is being adjusted.
537Watching what happens: The New York Times is making a front-page bet on real-time aggregation
A new homepage feature called “Watching” offers readers a feed of headlines, tweets, and multimedia from around the web.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
FiveThirtyEight
Houston Chronicle
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
Semana
Time
Frontline
Craigslist
Lens
Mozilla
St. Louis Globe-Democrat
Chicago Tribune
Corporation for Public Broadcasting