Monday, July 7, 2014

On arts coverage and ethics

Posted By on Mon, Jul 7, 2014 at 4:13 PM

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The bottom line of this story is old: Newspapers are having a hard go at it.

The second-to-bottom line is also old: Newspapers are searching for new sources of income.

But as the Columbia Journalism Review reported last week, certain papers are taking decidedly questionable routes these days to keep the doors open.

Meet the Greensboro News & Record, a daily in North Carolina, which recently announced that the arts nonprofit ArtsGreensboro will underwrite 70 stories about the arts scene there this year. Actual coverage is better than ads for ArtsGreensboro, and News & Record will get $15,000. (Oh, and "complete independence and discretion" in said coverage.)

Any journalist with at least a little experience will tell you that this is dangerously close to unethical, and some will say that this is all-the-way completely unethical, no question. Cue the flashing red lights. But there's more to the story, and as CJR writer Corey Hutchins says, 15K isn't even a "transformative" amount of money for a paper of News & Record's size, nor its level of distress. It's had to cut back, but with owner Warren Buffett, it isn't in existential crisis.

So why do it?

Hutchins goes over several points, and talks with News & Record editor and publisher Jeff Gauger, who OK'ed the decision. While this may be a lot of industry stuff most interesting to those already in it, it sheds light on the way information comes to you, the reader. How it filters through the company and ends up on the page is your business. You decide whether or not you trust this source of information.

Because the fact is, as soon as money and editorial content begins to mingle, it puts the one thing any newspaper worth its salt values most at risk: reader trust.

Arts folks are doing good work worth reporting, no doubt. But a newspaper's allegiance isn't to any of its beats, it's to the readers. Advocacy and coverage are entirely different things. People distrust the media enough as it is. Sometimes it's with good reason. This is one of those reasons. 

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