April 8, 2010

News Leaders and the Future

New Revenue and Ethics

As they look forward, news executives have concerns about some of the funding ideas being discussed for journalism. And these concerns are similar among newspaper and broadcast executives, thus marking fairly clear lines on what news executives deem acceptable.

The idea that draws the most concern is accepting money from interest groups that engage in advocacy of some kind. Nearly eight-in-ten surveyed (78%) had serious concerns about donations from groups of this sort. That can be a murkier line than it sounds. Some groups that fund advocacy can also fund groups that are educational. How much direct link can there be? If the organization is different but the funding source is the same, does that amount to interest group money? Such questions are harder to resolve.

There was a similar level of overarching concern about accepting government money. Fully 75% of all news executives surveyed—and 88% of newspaper executives—said they had “serious reservations,” or the highest level of concern, about direct subsidies from the government. And about half (46%) have that level of concern over tax credits for news organizations. There was somewhat less reservation over tax credits directed at news consumers, with 38% having serious reservations and 24% saying they are neutral. Still, even in these dire economic times, only 19% would welcome such funding.

There are bills in the Senate and House that would allow news organizations to accept individual nonprofit donations from private citizens, in the way that public radio and TV stations generate much of their revenue. News executives, however, seem to view this prospect as something of a slippery slope. Fully 39% have serious reservations about them, about half as many as with government subsidies, but another 31% have “some reservations.” Only two-in-ten would welcome or be enthusiastic about such revenue. And, going back to what they are actually trying at the moment, fully 74% say their organizations haven’t even begun to consider such an option.

How about nonprofit funding from foundations, which has become a key funding mechanism for many citizen and start-up online news ventures? Here the feelings are more divided. Only a quarter are seriously opposed, with another quarter (27%) expressing some reservations. But 31% would welcome these funds. Again, though, few organizations have done much to develop these options. Majorities (80% of ASNE and 64% of RTDNA respondents) say their organizations have not considered it at all.

News executives were often passionate in their reactions, both pro and con. “If the government becomes the ‘money bags’ for journalism, journalism will become the ‘bag man’ for the government,” wrote a member of RTDNA. “This would be an assault to the first amendment of the constitution.”

“We must keep our independence or perception of independence and accepting government subsidies ties you to the government we are meant to watch,” explained an ASNE member, “The lines become too blurred if we begin taking donations and subsidies. Even if we remain aggressive in coverage why would readers believe we are independent?”

And another simply wrote, “Government involvement in any form is a terrible idea. Ultimately, we either need to provide what people want or we go out of business.”

Said another, “None of these are acceptable choices. Want to raise revenue. Produce a QUALITY product.”

 

Serious Reservations over Alternative Funding (% Who Expressed Serious Reservations)

Question: “Here are some alternative options for funding journalism. For each, please tell us if you have any reservations or would welcome such funding.” Those who responded “serious reservations” are represented in the chart above.

The idea that some of the new revenue ideas might cross ethical boundaries is not just theoretical matter, either. More than a third of news executives (36%) said their organization had already tried or discussed some revenue experiment that raised concerns about ethics or editorial independence at the organization. Most of these related to the relationship between advertisers and news.

The biggest area (cited by 38% of news organizations) related to ad sponsorship of specific content.

About a quarter (26%) also said they were concerned about blurring lines between advertising and news, something that would be less transparent to audiences than sponsorship. While hardly a majority, the specific examples were striking. Among them:

  • “Paid product placement in news stories”
  • “Much more pressure to ‘interview’ advertisers. Have started allowing news anchors to do paid live reads and endorsements.”
  • “Our sales staff has ‘sold’ some interviews to our online experts. They don’t always offer great content, but a guest appearance is part of their sales package.”
  • “Sponsored segments.”
  • “The organization chart of our company places the news department under the sales director, not under a program director. The sales director developed an e-strategy that says it is important to have an internet presence but that we will only do things on the internet that can generate a profit or will be something a journalist wants to do that does not incur much expense. The news department is appalled.”
  • “Blurring the lines between ads and editorial space in the paper.”