Screengrab of a recent Slate blog post about standardized testing.

I’m generally a big fan of Slate and am happy that they’ve been running more education stories and blog posts in the past few months through its Schooled page. 

But I wish that their explanation of where the writing comes from — and who’s paying for it — was a bit more explicit.

As you can see above, Slate tells readers that the education writing that appears in Slate is supported by the Columbia Journalism School’s Teacher Project.

But the disclosure doesn’t or tell them who pays for the writing (it’s not Columbia) or even give readers a link to click through and find out more information.

Who’s paying for all this? The blogging and reporting that Slate is publishing and Columbia is providing is paid for by something called The Emerson Collective, a philanthropic LLC set up by Steve Jobs’ widow. The Collective is active in a number of areas including education and journalism.

Let me clear: I’m not suggesting that there’s any editorial influence or oversight of the work that readers are seeing or that I’ve detected. Slate even ran a blog post that snarked about one of Emerson’s other education initiatives:

But the disclosure line that’s currently provided seems pretty casual to me when it comes to transparency. And at very least, someone should have thought to have disclosed the matter in the case of the blog post about the funder, right?

To be sure, these kinds of relationships between outside funders, nonprofit journalism projects, and for-profit publishing partners is not at all an uncommon situation in the current media environment. 

I’ve brought up disclosure issues like this in the past, including the case of Jeff Bryant writing in Salon without any real indication of his work for labor organizations.

In this day and age of social media disruption and credibility concerns surrounding journalism, it seems worth taking the extra steps.

For its part, Slate doesn’t appear to be concerned: “The Teacher’s Project operates with complete editorial independence out of the Columbia Journalism School, and it is transparent about its current funding and long term funding plans,” said editor in chief Julia Turner in an emailed statement. “Our policy with content partners is to only work with those whose editorial standards and integrity we are confident of, and to let readers know when we’re publishing work in tandem with such a group, as we’ve done here.”

Asked about the situation, Politico’s Jack Shafer (a former Slate writer) says that he tends “to err on the side of overdisclosure” but isn’t otherwise alarmed, either.

An argument could be made that Slate’s only obligation is to identify the outside newsroom providing the coverage, not the funder. In contrast to the situation at the LA Times, where the funder and the news outlet are in direct contact, the relationship here between the funder and the news outlet is indirect, going through Columbia’s J-School.

But at least one other outlet in a similar indirect relationship with an outside funder takes disclosure a step further, indicating the funding source as well as the reporting partner. That’s the New York Times’ work with ProPublica.

The key part of the NYT statement is this: “ProPublica receives significant funding from the Sandler Foundation and from other donors. Click on the links for more information about Pro Publica’s management team, staff, partnerships,board of directors and supporters.”

Oh, and there are also live hyperlinks so readers can dive in further if they’re curious or concerned.

To be fair, this lengthy disclosure doesn’t appear at the bottom of each ProPublica-produced story, but rather on the ProPublica archive page hosted by the NYT.

And it might not be workable if there several equal funders rather than just one main source.

Maybe Slate could do something like that at the bottom of the Schooled page — or at least give readers a live hyperlink to find out more about the journalism being provided by Columbia. 

You don’t have that link, do you? Here it is, and here’s the relevant language about funding and editorial independence:

“The Emerson Collective has been the principal sponsor since the Teacher Project was launched in 2014, while additional funders are being sought to extend the coverage into 2020. Columbia Journalism School provides material, financial, educational and administrative support. The project’s sponsors have no role in the selection of fellows or in editorial decisions.”

Related posts: A Code Of Ethics For Nonprofit Education Journalism?

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.