Monday, January 18, 2010

As Shrinking Newsrooms Use Upstarts’ Content, Vetting Questions Arise

The New York Times

News comes from more and more outlets, about which readers know less and less. Publishers and broadcasters have always called on freelance journalists. But a generation ago, if they used material from another organization, it was usually limited to a handful of large, well-known and respected ones like The Associated Press or Reuters. With established newsrooms shrinking, a raft of smaller news outlets have cropped up in the last few years, selling or simply giving news reports to the traditional media — groups like ProPublica, Global Post, Politico and Kaiser Health News.

“There are more pressures than ever to acquire content from outside sources, and there are going to be even more going forward,” said Alan D. Mutter, a media consultant and former newspaper editor who blogs about the news business. That means that despite declining resources, newsrooms, he said, “have to get better at due diligence in terms of who this provider is,” and at explaining it to their audiences.

Some of these issues came to a head recently, when The Washington Post published an article from a newly formed news organization, The Fiscal Times, about the debate over federal spending without disclosing that the group’s financial backer is Peter G. Peterson, who has an abiding interest in the issue and ties to experts cited in the article. The Post later acknowledged that it should have disclosed the connections, and its ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, found fault with the article — though not with the underlying relationship with The Fiscal Times.

But there have been more extreme lapses, including television news programs’ broadcasting so-called reports that were produced by outsiders on one side of a particular issue.
In the best-known case, in 2004, the Bush administration produced a video that looked like a news report in support of its proposed changes to Medicare, and dozens of stations around the country included it in their newscasts.

Several media analysts and executives said they do not yet see this outsourcing of articles in newspapers as producing anything like that kind of lapse — the major content suppliers are staffed by experienced journalists and so far have a good track record — but the risk is real. Inevitably, they said, there will be groups or individuals with particular slants offering to fill the reporting gaps for traditional news organizations — and the more of them there are, the harder it will be to perceive their agendas.

“There are going to be some newsrooms, I can guarantee you, they’re going to get garbage and they’re going to print it,” said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla.

For consumers, it becomes that much harder to gauge the credibility of reporting, “and it’s not as clear what the agendas are,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, former editor of The Chicago Tribune. “There has to be total transparency.”

(The New York Times has printed the work of ProPublica and the Chicago News Cooperative, another new organization, and it recently put one of its neighborhood blogs, covering parts of Brooklyn, in the hands of the staff and students of the Graduate School of Journalism of the City University of New York.)

Experts say that when many people have a hand in financing and running a news outlet, there is less danger of an agenda creeping into coverage than when there is a single dominant supporter or owner, like Mr. Peterson. Both Mr. Peterson and The Fiscal Times say that he has no involvement in the group’s journalistic work.

Similar questions have been raised, though not as pointedly, about the Allbritton family, owners of Politico, and Herbert and Marion Sandler, who gave the bulk of the money supporting ProPublica.

What no one can predict is whether the coming years will produce a rush by wealthy individuals or groups to create their own newsrooms — with or without specific biases — to reach consumers either directly or by placing their work with publishers and broadcasters.

But none of the risks posed by outsourcing is entirely new. As for using less-than-objective work from outside sources, “there are a lot of newspapers that essentially take press releases and put them in the paper,” Mr. Mutter said.

For generations, owners who have little or no need to answer to shareholders have famously used their newspapers to pursue their political aims — most famously, the early 20th-century press barons like William Randolph Hearst, Robert R. McCormick and Harrison Gray Otis. In fact, more diffuse corporate ownership did not become the norm until the late 20th century.
“We went through a corporate era, and with more media fragmentation, maybe we’re going back to a stage when individual owners are really more in charge,” said Philip S. Balboni, president and chief executive of Global Post.

For an established news organization, “there is, of course, a greater danger when you outsource than when it is fully within your control,” he said, and it will become more important than ever “to be very careful about who you use and to monitor the content that you use.”

A version of this article appeared in print on January 18, 2010, on page B6 of the New York edition of The New York Times.

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