The News & Record’s arrangement with ArtsGreensboro: Is it pay for play?

There are several troubling aspects of the News & Record’s agreement to allow ArtsGreensboro to underwrite some of the newspaper’s coverage of the arts.

1. At its core, the city’s umbrella arts organization is paying for news coverage. Most reputable news organizations avoid this conflict of interest. One of the principles of journalism, as articulated in “The Elements of Journalism,” is this: “Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.” The idea is that journalists can cover news and events “without fear or favor,” to steal a journalistic credo.

In this a newspaper’s credibility is at stake. From “The Elements of Journalism:” “While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform–not their devotion to a certain group or outcome.”

Editor-publisher Jeff Gauger explains in his column that the paper’s independence is sacrosanct. I’ll take him at his word. (I appreciate his transparency in announcing the agreement and making note of it with each publication. That’s a significant sign.) But no one should be surprised if readers question when performances are praised, and feature stories overwhelmingly positive. After all, everyone knows who is paying. And while the arts organization says it is comfortable with negative reviews, that’s easy to say now. Wait until the day the review is published.

2. Who is keeping an eye on the operation of the arts organization? Again, from “The Elements of Journalism:” “It must serve as an independent monitor of power.” There is a lot of money involved in the arts in Greensboro. I suspect the newspaper will have its fulltime staff maintain its hard news coverage, but there should be suspicion when a news organization is getting money directly from an agency it writes about. Will the coverage be as intense and skeptical. Knowing the news staff at the paper, I’ve no doubt it will tough-minded, but there will always be that question lingering.

3. Will there be other underwriting arrangements?  According to the Triad Business Journal, ArtsGreensboro is paying $15,000 for 70 stories. That’s much cheaper than advertising in the newspaper. There certainly are groups that want more coverage and have the money to buy it. Environmentalists, religious groups, politicians, baseball lovers…the list is long. If the money is good enough, can it be stopped?

4. From the other side, can the newspaper use the ArtsGreensboro money to pay for a review of a show of a non-ArtsGreensboro member?

Ultimately, the question is whether readers are being served. In “The Elements of Journalism,” authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthiel write that journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens: “This commitment to citizens first is the basis of a news organization’s credibility, the implied covenant that tells the audience the coverage is not slanted for friends or advertisers.”

I’m sure that arts organizations and patrons want more coverage. I don’t doubt that the readers of the newspaper want 70 more stories about the arts. (Readers of newspapers tend to want more of everything, from business to comics.) I doubt, though, that arts coverage is in the top five in the “give-us-more” category.

I am one of those “holier-than-thou” journalists Jeff refers to. (I don’t think my nose is in the air, though.) I’m troubled by the arrangement because it seems to put the paper’s independence and credibility at risk. It raises the question of whether the arts organization — and now any organization — can pay for play. And that’s certainly a business model; it’s just a different business model with different values.

I have a great deal of respect for the journalists at the News & Record. They have weathered tough times. I give them the benefit of the doubt that they will view events with the same analytical eye that they always have. And that editors will be as skeptical in editing tomorrow as they were yesterday. But ultimately, we’ll just wait and see. I hope my discomfort at the arrangement is misplaced.

I am heartened by Jeff’s last comment that it’s a new era and the paper is being creative. I applaud that and hope it spreads.

6 thoughts on “The News & Record’s arrangement with ArtsGreensboro: Is it pay for play?

  1. Troubling and creative. Would it be better or worse if it were simply a sponsorship and that got more coverage instead of a printed ad? BTW, do you know of this sort of arrangement anywhere else?

  2. NPR does a similar thing in co-producing health insurance coverage with Kaiser Permanente. They don’t tag it that way – they bill it as a partnership with, I think “Kaiser Health News” or something like that, but I think it raises exactly the same fundamental question of whether or not there is an agenda underlying the story.

    I suppose the issue will ultimately be identical to that of who supports PACs. “Do we want to know (or have the right to know) who is trying to influence our understanding of a given issue?” PACs trying to shield donor lists have one answer to that question – “No.” MSNBC and Fox have a different (implicit) answer – “You already know our bias or you wouldn’t be here.” At least the N&R is trying to answer, “Yes.” However, I wish they had not opened the question in the first place.

    And speaking of Fox, doesn’t Jeff’s disclaimer sound a little bit like, “We report, you decide?”

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