As the media landscape changed over the past few years, some university public relations officials began to make an observation – the amount of coverage their organizations’ research was getting had decreased significantly. Shrinking newsroom staffs apparently made it difficult to get their messages to members of the public, so they decided to just skip the media filter altogether.
The institutions – 35 of them, representing some of the country’s top research universities – formed their own news site. Using content from their communications offices, the universities are running Futurity.org. The site has video content, presences on Facebook and Twitter and many other features one expects from a 21st-century news organization. A staff editor tweaks content and pulls only stories that she thinks will appeal to large audiences, separating the site from traditional news release aggregators such as EurekAlert!.
Efforts such as Futurity are becoming more common as news-making organizations look outside of traditional news outlets, many of which are shrinking and scaling back coverage, to tell their stories. Some observers have applauded efforts like Futurity, but others are calling it “almost-journalism”, arguing that these direct-to-reader methods are often missing fairness – a staple of journalism.
“Any information is better than no information,” Charlie Petit, a former science reporter at U.S. News & World Report told the San Jose Mercury News in a story about Futurity. “The quality of research university news releases is quite high. They are rather reliable. But they are completely absent any skepticism or investigative side.”
But some non-news organizations are hiring away professional reporters to staff their operations and have employed measures to keep their journalism fair and balanced, even if the funding sources aren’t.
For example, when the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on U.S. health care and global health policies, launched Kaiser Health News, they assembled an advisory board composed of top journalists, including former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Karen Dunlap, president of the Poynter Institute. The site is also staffed by former reporters, one a Pulitzer-Prize winner.
Mark Flatten, a former newspaper investigative reporter who went to work for a nonprofit advocacy group earlier this year, said for reporters working at nonprofits the funding source doesn’t have to affect the work. “I’m an investigative reporter: a finder of fact,” Flatten told the Cronkite News Service, “fair, accurate, not skewing things, telling it like it is.”
And, as Jim Barnett, a former reporter who now covers nonprofit news on his blog, The Nonprofit Road, argues, publishers at professional news organizations can potentially have the same biases. And nonprofits created to support journalism (more on those in a later post) often have funding that could suggest biases. “There is no way to stop a journalist — or an organization that employs journalists — who is determined to try cloaking ideology or self-interest in the guise of objective reporting,” Barnett writes. “Works of journalism ultimately must stand or fall on their own merits, and so must their publishers. Both must earn credibility the old-fashioned way.”
Additionally, as Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, writes, news organizations have long relied on reports generated by advocacy groups such as the ACLU and Human Rights Watch. And media watchdogs have accused professional journalists of relying too much on university press releases for news reports in the past.
Regardless of alleged biases or transparency issues, though, the organizations have something that many journalism organizations don’t: a stable business model. While as nonprofits they are still prone to the ups and downs of the economy, they don’t have to sell ads or subscriptions to finance their content. Furthermore, many of the news operations exist as a small sector within a larger, stable nonprofit organization.
The move of many news sources to become news producers raises questions such as: How will consumers be able to judge the quality of news and information in the online era without relying on established brands as they do with current mainstream organizations? For journalists are shifting from traditional for-profit organizations to advocacy groups, will they be able to easily transition back? Will these “almost-journalism” organizations eventually be able to gain wider distribution for their work through mainstream organizations? As audiences shrink for many traditional news outlets, will there be a reduced incentive for public relations professionals to go to “outside” journalists with their pitches?