A Code Of Ethics For Nonprofit Education Journalism?

In the New Yorker, former Columbia Journalism School dean Nick Lemann last week propose “A Code of Ethics for Journalism Nonprofits,” arguing that, “as more nonprofit news outlets emerge, it may be time for them to collectively consider a new industry-wide version of the traditional advertising-based editorial protections.”

In so doing, Lemann is flagging an important issue and picking up on a theme that has been a frequent topic of exploration on this site and elsewhere. However, in a phone interview earlier today, Lemann admits there’s no clear mechanism through which nonprofit news outlets would come up with a new version of the “firewall” between funders and editorial decisions. In the end it may be the funders not the news outlets who take the lead.

As has been widely noted, “in the last decade or so a good many nonprofit news organizations have started to fill the gaps left by the commercial decline of the newspaper business… Their work is always good, and sometimes spectacular,” writes Lemann.

According to Lemann, nonprofit news outlets are “relatively cheap to produce (far cheaper than a daily newspaper), and, on their good days, they have a visibility and effect disproportionate to their size, which gives them a plausible argument in seeking nonmarket support.”

[As a reminder: The Grade is funded by the Broad, Walton, and Bloomberg foundations (through Education Post) and by the American Federation of Teachers. Its publishing partner, The Washington Monthly, also receives funding for news coverage.]

But foundation support for journalism is tricky, as Lemann notes. “The traditional major newspaper advertisers, like department stores and auto dealers, didn’t want to have a conversation about what work the City Hall reporter would be doing before they signed a contract, because the reporter usually wasn’t going to be covering their business. But that’s exactly the kind of  conversation donors to news nonprofits want to have about the reporter on campaign finance, or education reform, or environmental policy, before they decide whether the gift they’re being asked for fits their mission.”

Creating some sort of industry standards wouldn’t be easy, writes Lemann, but it “will build trust with readers and media critics, and protection from editorial meddling.”

In his piece Lemann isn’t really focused on education news outlets like Hechinger and Chalkbeat that have emerged in recent years, or long-running outlets like Catalyst Chicago and the Philadelphia Notebook (which recently named a new head to replace Paul Socolar).

He’s focused on much larger outlets, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, which is going nonprofit, and The New Republic, which could do the same, and on other nonprofit outlets like ProPublica, Voice of San Diego, and the Marshall Project. 

But education journalism is mentioned, and is clearly having to grapple with issues of disclosure, transparency, and funder relationships. There are a number of new education-specific outlets and endeavors, and a particularly active funder community interested in increasing education coverage. 

The Gates Foundation alone has given roughly $7 million a year towards its media partnerships, as you may recall from an October interview with a program officer there. 

And at least some education news outlets are figuring out that they need to pay more attention to this than they have in the past, and perhaps even do so publicly.

On Twitter, Chalkbeat co-founder Philissa Cramer responded to Lemann’s essay: “Funny, I am working on this for my nonprofit news org right this second.” 

[I’ve reached out to Cramer to ask about this development and will report back what I hear from her.]

During a phone call earlier today, Lemann said that the piece he’d written “really resonates among people who have done fundraising themselves, particularly if they are involved with relatively new news nonprofits.” For writers who are more on the editorial side, or at more established outlets, not so much.

Asked to list specific instances in which an outlet’s coverage seems to have been affected by its funders, Lemann declined to give any particulars.

 Some ways that nonprofit outlets have tried to avoid credibility issues include declining to take program- or beat-specific funding, calling on funders to give operational support and leave decisions to the grant recipient, Lemann told me. Another route is to take funding from a broad array of funders. 

Asked about hybrid efforts in which a private foundation funds a for-profit news outlet, Lemann said “I always felt it was a little harder to justify a philanthropic gift to a for-profit organization.” However, he defends indirect funding situations in which nonprofit outlets like ProPublica or Columbia’s own Teacher Project take foundation money and provide their coverage to for-profit outlets to the New York Times or Slate. “The way they’re set up is different.”

There doesn’t seem to be any nationwide association of nonprofit journalism outlets that could perhaps develop a code of conduct that members could sign onto. “Somebody has to do the work of being a convener,” he says.

Another possible route would be something developed by ASME, which has done the same about other hot topics like advertorials.

There hasn’t been much leadership from the funder side, Lemann agrees — though funders could end up wasting their money if their involvement delegitimizes the journalism they’re supporting. “I think a lot of foundations are feeling their way through this.”

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.