Who do journalists work for?

“Who do journalists work for?”

There’s the literal answer (and one we’ve been offered a handful of times): their bosses. Or, whatever news company they’re hired by. (Thanks.)  

Then, there are the answers that have divided journalists from many of the people whom we’ve stopped on the street. While journalists have maintained that they work in the interest of the public, the public appears to not be so sure.

It’s true that journalism’s business model has been shifting to rely increasingly on subscribers, rather than advertisers, for funding. (Think, paywalls and article limits.) But a quick glance at the ad-adorned webpages of many major news outlets might tell a different story to their readership.

Quote: Ooh, ooh. Huh. Yeah, I hate to sound jaded, but journalists don’t get paid by the public. They get paid by advertisers, so, I don’t know if they work for the public at all.  (Jay, writer from Austin, TX).

Again, many news outlets are funded in part by their subscribers. But, realizing in subsequent interviews that Jay was far from alone in his thinking, we decided we would start asking the publications we visit about this idea.

“Why should the public trust that your publication’s coverage isn’t influenced by your funders?” Rachel started off by asking Mike Kanin, the publisher of the Texas Observer in Austin. In response, Kanin launched into an explanation of what a publisher does, and how his job is vastly different from that of Texas Observer’s news editor. We were surprised to find that we didn’t already know.

Basically, the publisher handles everything to do with fundraising: planning events, reaching out to potential donors, and the like. The editor handles, well, editorial. (All published content.)

A responsible organization, I would argue, has a significant wall between what a publisher does and what an editor does. And that’s there to make sure that uh any financial whatever that we may be attached to have no impact on editorial.

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What really drove Kanin’s point home, however, was his explanation of what would happen if he tried to influence editorial decisions:

If I went to [editor’s] office and tried to tell him what to write, he’d punch me in the face. And that would be appropriate.

While we weren’t able to interview The Observer’s editor, we did sit down with Emily Ramshaw, the Editor-in-Chief of the Texas Tribune. The tribune is also based in Austin, and, like The Observer, is a non-profit.

When we asked Ramshaw the same question, her response echoed Kanin’s. She, too, explained that editorial and business decisions remain completely separate from one another.

The idea of a separation existing between the two is great, but how do they go about creating this separation? And how is the public (or us) supposed to believe that it exists in practice to the same extent it does in theory?

Ramshaw offers one reassurance: the Tribune will take money from anyone, regardless of their political leaning.

We seek underwriting and sponsorships and donation grants from basically everybody under the sun.

But the most important step that they take, she affirms, is to “disclose, disclose, disclose.”

We have probably the most robust disclosure process in the nation.  I would hold us up to any other news organization for-profit or non-profit. At the bottom of every single story we write, we list every single person mentioned in the story.

Sure enough, the second article I clicked on the Tribune’s home page had this disclosure tacked onto the end:

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This “complete list” isn’t kidding around. Listed donors range from the “less than 10” category — including one who registered under the name of “baconator”  to over $2 million from the Knight foundation.

We’re not sure how unique the Texas Tribune is in publishing a list this robust. We easily found a similar catalogue for NPR, for example, but weren’t able to find one for the NYTimes or the Washington Post. The difference between the non-profit and for-profit model is surely one explanation for this difference, but we haven’t yet asked a for-profit publication directly.

You know it’s a struggle that we have and if we’re losing the argument it means that we’re not you know doing a good job of telling people about how this relationship works.

While disclosing donors may highlight any blatant bias contained within the article, what it doesn’t do is reassure readers that they’re getting all the relevant information. In other words, you can’t know what you don’t know.

So, what else can news organizations do? Or, is the public right to be skeptical?

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