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Nov. 2, 2010, 4:30 p.m.

Felix Salmon takes a blogging fellowship at CJR, has no problem annoying funder, Pete Peterson

Felix Salmon, who blogs on economics for Reuters, is heading to Columbia Journalism Review — sort of. Salmon has signed on to a part-time fellowship covering, as CJR puts it, “the media’s handling of the federal budget, unemployment, income disparities, the national debt, entitlement programs, taxes, and the other economic policy questions.” The fellowship is sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Peterson is a former Nixon commerce secretary and fiscal conservative whose foundation takes a strong stance on the need to cut government spending. Peterson also funds The Fiscal Times, an online news outlet that covers much the same turf, and whose partnership with The Washington Post led to criticism from some corners, including our Jim Barnett.

We don’t wade into ethics-in-media-criticism debates much here at the Lab, but in this case we thought it might be worth a call to Salmon about the arrangement. As foundations — some of them with pet issues or agendas — emerge as major backers of the news we consume, what’s a healthy distance between the hand signing the check and the one taking it ensured? Salmon happily told me he isn’t worried about his work being unduly influenced: “Just as I have no fear of annoying other journalists, I have no fear of annoying Pete Peterson.”

I also spoke with Salmon about how the arrangement will work day-to-day. Salmon’s CJR posts will also appear on his blog at Reuters, so his regular readers will see all of the content and CJR readers who don’t follow his work will get a taste. The gig is only for a few months, as Salmon is finishing out the fellowship for Holly Yeager who recently jumped to the Washington Post (and is also a friend and former colleague of mine). The fellowship might renew in January. It’ll be interesting to watch Salmon work with CJR’s Dean Starkman, since Salmon has criticized him before on his blog. (Like here, last month: “Dean has a very old-fashioned view of what journalism is and should be…in fact Dean’s attitude is extremely elitist…But Dean doesn’t see it…”)

Here’s a lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Salmon:

LKM: Why did you take the gig at CJR? What do you hope to write about there?

FS: Well, I think it’s exactly what it says on the tin. Macro and fiscal policy, or rather the meta stuff — I’m going to be blogging about the press coverage of macro and fiscal policy.

LKM: How is that different from what you’re doing now on your Reuters blog?

FS: It will all appear on the Reuters blog. It’ll basically be cross-posted on the Reuters blog and CJR. The Reuters blog will get all the magic CJR fairy dust, insofar as there is any. So, there is no real difference. There is a bit of a narrower focus, and this will basically force me to do more of what I was doing when I first started out on my first full-time blogging gig in September 2006, sort of concentrating more on economics and less on — well, not less on, but it’ll help to force me to write more about economic and fiscal matters. It’s been something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, but I just you know, let fall through the cracks.

LKM: How was negotiating this between Reuters, your corporate boss, and CJR, this nonprofit? Was there any tension between the two organizations?

FS: I was not party to any tension there. Basically, this is a win-win for both. This is good for the blog because it means I get to benefit from Dean Starkman’s expertise and other people at CJR who will sort of help improve my media criticism. And it means that my stuff gets a certain amount of ratification by them and it means I get read by a certain number of people who wouldn’t read me otherwise. So that’s all good for Reuters and it’s obviously good for CJR too. I think one of the things they find difficult is finding people who are willing to be rude about fellow journalists, when I’ve never had much of a problem on that front.

LKM: Is Deak Starkman going to edit your stuff? In terms of it being a “blog,” how is it going to work — will you file and he’ll give you edits?

FS: I think it’s going to be more sort of a high-level conceptual editor position. Not disimilar to what I have with Jim Ledbetter here at Reuters. This isn’t going to be, “he sort of line-edits every piece before it goes out.” The details are a little bit TBD right now — I don’t even have my Moveable Type login yet or whatever it is they have. I’m sure I’ll simply be able to post these things. But at the same time, I’m equally sure I’ll be in contact with Dean and he’ll be giving me ideas and we’ll be talking about what I’ve been writing and that kind of thing.

LKM: How much do you think we’ll see of you on CJR’s site?

FS: That’s a really good question. I honestly don’t know the answer to that. It largely depends on how much various people send me stuff and engage with this whole new emphasis on an old beat. If I get a lot of emails from people, “look at this, isn’t this wonderful, isn’t this terrible” — from Dean, from readers, from anyone, then I might tend to be doing this quite a lot. Yes, please. If there’s coverage that merits me writing about it, either pro or con, send it to me. Send me an at-reply [on Twitter] or email it to me.

LKM: One thing we’re curious here about at the Lab is the fact that it’s a Pete Peterson fellowship. Is there a certain take that you’re expected to have?

FS: Thank you for asking that. The answer is, of course, no. There isn’t. Pete Peterson is well-known for his views on fiscal policies in particular. One of the reasons he set up this fellowship is because he wants people to really pay attention to what people are writing about fiscal policy. But this does not mean in any way that I am an austerean. There was no ideological litmus test here. No one at CJR asked me about fiscal policy at an ideological level. And although I’m absolutely going to be including my own opinions in these blog posts, I think most of it is going to be more my opinion of how these things are going to be how these things are reported — rather than in terms of what should be done about revamping Social Security, say, or something like that. Just as I have no fear of annoying other journalists, I have no fear of annoying Pete Peterson.

LKM: I am sure a lot of places would be happy to syndicate your work. What you sold you on this?

FS: The syndication question is an interesting one. There’s obviously some kind of value to what I do and Reuters is interested in syndicating my work generally. I think one of the reasons its not a problem from a business perspective is that it’s a very narrow subset of what I do. This isn’t sort of a full-rights syndication deal. It’s not like someone who would want to like to syndicate my stuff and say, look, CJR get’s all the stuff for free — it’s not even free — but, anyway. The main upside is that this isn’t a one-way thing where CJR gets content from me and I get nothing in return. I’m getting drawn into that little group there. I’m hoping that a little bit of editorial feedback and ideas for stories are going to come and it’s going to improve my blogging. Now, if I get syndicated to some random site that just copies and pastes what I do, that doesn’t really improve what I do in that sense. This, with any luck, if all goes according to plan, really will.

POSTED     Nov. 2, 2010, 4:30 p.m.
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