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Oct. 2, 2009, 11 a.m.

Frank Daniels’ speeding ticket and the role of an unmeddling publisher

Not long after I landed my first reporting job at the Raleigh News & Observer in 1988, the publisher and primary owner, Frank Daniels Jr., walked into the newsroom one day, handed the cop reporter a speeding ticket he had just received on Interstate 40, and told the reporter to write about it for the next day’s paper. As far as I know, it was the only time Frank ever demanded that a news story be published in his own newspaper.

Frank stayed away from his newsroom for one simple reason: He knew that meddling was a bad idea. No reporter or editor worth his or her salt would ever want to be associated with a newsroom where the publisher determined what beats got covered and what stories got written. If Frank’s paper appeared to harbor biases or pick on certain politicians, that was a matter to be settled between the journalists and their sources. With that philosophy, Frank ran what was widely regarded as one of the nation’s best regional newspapers.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that rather than sell the N&O to the McClatchy chain as he did in 1995, Frank created a foundation that ran the paper as a nonprofit. Would Frank then have started ordering up stories that he thought had been overlooked by his star reporters and editors?

I don’t think so.

The point here is that journalistic bias is a function of human intention, not the business model under which the story is produced. For-profit, nonprofit, it does not matter. If a reporter or editor has an axe to grind, he or she is going to find a venue to grind it.

I offer this reminder as a coda to stories that followed Warren Hellman’s announcement that he would put up $5 million toward a new, nonprofit newsroom to cover news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Among them was a critique from Slate’s Jack Shafer that the recent wave of new nonprofit news organizations is somehow tainted because it doesn’t meet some market-based test of acceptance. Shafer’s rule of thumb seems to be: If it doesn’t sell ads, it doesn’t merit publishing.

I think back to the stories I used to write at the N&O. A lot of them were about marketing abuses by one of the major drug companies based in nearby Research Triangle Park. The CEO, a friend of Frank’s, once called asking him to pull me off the beat. Frank’s answer, relayed by my editor, was to tell the CEO to go to hell. The truth — that the marketing abuses hurt people — didn’t sell ads. But by telling it, the N&O did its community a service that never could translate into an ad rate.

Frank understood the value of public service better than most, and that’s what made him a great publisher. Will Hellman get it as well? I don’t know him, so I can’t say. But I do know John Thornton, founder of Texas Tribune, also mentioned in Shafer’s piece, and I can say that he certainly does. Why would he plunk down $1 million of his own money to create his own vanity press? If that’s all it amounts to, then nobody will read it. John’s a smart guy, and he gets it, the same as Frank did.

So where does that leave us? Should we mourn the era of corporate media ownership that brought us the Los Angeles Times’ Staples Center fiasco? Do we think there will be less publishing-side pressure on for-profit newsrooms now that so many newspapers are in bankruptcy or otherwise on their way to extinction? Or should we wring our hands about the undue influence of nonprofit publishers who long for the day when their local newspaper actually carried reviews of the ballet?

I’ll take the latter. The nonprofit model isn’t the only answer. But it is an answer to the problem of underwriting socially responsible journalism in the digital age. If nothing else, the nonprofit model offers a range of alternatives to addressing the problem of newsroom bias.

For one, there are unique governance structures. Many of the startup nonprofits of note have installed journalism advisory boards to oversee the work product. Could you imagine a regional paper like the N&O bringing in renowned journalists from places like the Washington Post or New York Times to evaluate their work? Of course not. But that’s what nonprofits are doing.

And then there’s the fundraising. Sure, donations come with conditions. But so do subscriptions. Would you keep subscribing to a paper that never got delivered in the rain or dropped the cartoon that you and your spouse laugh about over breakfast? Of course not. Fundraising in every form — whether memberships, foundation grants or corporate sponsorships — is a test of a nonprofit’s ties to its community and an opportunity to make the case that it provides value even to those who choose not read or to donate. Fundraising 101 teaches nonprofits that the path to success and sustainability is to build a diverse base of support. And that’s exactly what successful journalism nonprofits are doing.

The hard truth is that there is no way to outlaw bias, either real or perceived, from newsrooms. It has been a fact of life as long as there have been journalists.

Photo of N&O box by bunchofpants used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 2, 2009, 11 a.m.
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