In Vermont, a journalistic conflict too far

Now here’s a bad idea. The Commons, a monthly, non-profit newspaper that covers the Brattleboro, Vt., area, recently applied for — and received — a $25,000 loan from the town government in order to relaunch as a weekly and refurbish its website.

As Bill Densmore observes at the New England News Forum, Brattleboro is something of a hotbed for citizen journalism, as it is the home of the pioneering DIY news site iBrattleboro. The town is also covered by the Brattleboro Reformer, owned by Dean Singleton’s financially ailing MediaNews Group.

According to this story by Susan Keese of Vermont Public Radio, Jeff Potter, The Commons’ executive editor, says his paper is an example of a news organization that is “more of a public utility and less of a commercial enterprise.” Select Board chairman Dick DeGray sees no problem with the town’s funding a newspaper, saying:

We viewed it as a small business loan. It didn’t have any bearing that it was a newspaper. Since I’ve been on the board we’ve given money to a local brewery we’ve given money to a bagel start up. So as long as they meet the criteria, which they did.

DeGray adds that the loan does not come with any strings attached with respect to how The Commons covers Brattleboro.

Well, then. First, let’s acknowledge that this isn’t a simple question. In an e-mail exchange yesterday, Densmore reminded me that many for-profit community newspapers are heavily dependent on legal ads placed by the local government. And as we struggle toward new models for sustaining journalism, conflicts will inevitably arise.

For instance, the New Haven Independent, a non-profit news site that I follow closely, has come under criticism for allegedly favoring a Latino parents group that receives funding from the same foundation that also pays the Independent to cover education reform.

Last year, you may recall, the Bay State Banner, a for-profit paper that covers Boston’s African-American community, staved off a crisis with the help of a $200,000 loan arranged by Mayor Tom Menino. As Adam Reilly reported in the Boston Phoenix, the Banner quickly morphed from a harsh Menino critic into Sergeant Schultz.

Journalism is rife with conflicts, starting with the daily conflict of not wanting to offend advertisers. And I’m sure the folks in Brattleboro are earnest and well-intentioned — we are talking about Vermont, after all. But it still seems to me that rule number one is you can’t take money directly from the very government you are supposed to be keeping an eye on.

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49 thoughts on “In Vermont, a journalistic conflict too far

  1. Julie Drizin

    As a rule, journalists shouldn’t take money from governments OR businesses they need to watchdog, but public radio/TV is a good example of how it’s possible to receive public funds and still deliver (mostly) solid uncorrupted journalism. It’s essential that the funding is completely transparent and disclosed to the audience. Plus, the parties need an agreement that the funding is independent of editorial choices and voices, without any expectations of favorable coverage. I would suggest that The Commons keep a box on its homepage mentioning the funding with a way that readers can alert the editors if they spot lame or lax reporting on government they might attribute to the financial arrangement. It’s probably a one-time only loan anyway, especially if The Commons does its job right. ;-)

    Julie Drizin
    @AIRMQ2

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Julie: Public radio does great journalism, but receives very little public money. It could survive without it. Public television? Really? What do you have in mind?

  2. Julie Drizin

    I’m no expert on the funding issue, but the Corporation for Public Broadcasting did have a $420 million appropriation this year.
    http://www.cpb.org/aboutcpb/financials/budget/
    Most of that money got spread around to support public radio and TV stations serving local communities, and to national programs/services on all platforms. It seeded innovation projects (like MQ2) and the new Local Journalism Centers (LJCs). Federal $ may represent a small portion of NPR’s overall budget, but it’s more significant on the local level. Plus, stations and programs have received federal stimulus money, and grants from NEA, NEH and other federal agencies. It’s true that a lot of public radio and TV relies on underwriting support these days, but I don’t think our public media would survive (especially right now) without federal investment. The Free Press has called for even greater federal funding (a billion endowment), charging that the public funding of media is much lower in the U.S. than in other industrialized democracies. See this visualization:

    http://www.newpublicmedia.org/resources

    Best,
    Julie

  3. BP Myers

    @Dan said: Public television? Really? What do you have in mind?

    Not sure what you’re asking, but I would certainly miss The Newshour, Frontline, Independant Lens, The American Experience, Nova, and dozens of other shows on public television.

    And if public radio can survive without a stipend from the government, they should stop accepting it. The day they do, I’ll believe they can survive without it.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @BP: “Frontline” is excellent. “The NewsHour” is a disaster, and seems programmed mainly to avoid offending members of Congress who might cut off their funding. That’s what I had in mind.

  4. BP Myers

    Dan said: “The NewsHour” is a disaster

    Wow. Not the way I see it at all. There is no better interviewer on television than Jim Lehrer, and if he plays it too much down the middle for your liking, then I’m not sure it’s the Newshour that’s the problem.

    But I’d be happy to read any blogging you’ve done on the subject or any links you might have. I honestly ain’t seeing it.

  5. Fran Lynggaard Hansen

    Well Dan Kennedy, what in the world do YOU know about this newspaper? How can you simply say it’s a bad idea without offering any ideas?

    I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve watched the Brattleboro Reformer start to charge an amazing amount of money for obituaries, and their increasing lack of local coverage. Half of what I read in it, I saw on the internet the previous day. There was even a suggestion by the publisher about a year ago that they were going to stop publishing local news altogether and instead “collect” it in their office in Colorado.

    What do you propose we citizens do? Wait for it to fail and leave us hanging, or help support a weekly newspaper who is doing a good job?

  6. Elizabeth Seal

    Dan my sweet, according to your whip-smart observations, newspapers should therefore not accept ads from anyone. Especially political ads. Well, I guess they can accept ads from the people that lose, but not the people that win. Oh, and editorials are probably a bad idea, too.
    Since when are newspapers banned from accepting small business loans, BTW? A friend of mine is a reporter and she’s accepting a business loan to replace her computer and other office things she lost in the March floods. Is she barred from taking advantage of flood-victim programs because she (gasp!) might one day WRITE about them? Consternation! Uproar!

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @I see we’re not real big on journalistic independence in Brattleboro. Too bad.

  7. Jeff Potter

    Wow, Dan Kennedy. Glad to meet you.

    You seem to have cast some significant judgment on our newspaper and our ambitions without so much as getting in touch to verify the premise of your argument. (“Still seems to me that rule number one” is you talk to sources before casting aspersions, or do the rules differ for bloggers, even bloggers who blog about journalists who don’t meet your exacting high standards?)

    In short: I stand by my personal and professional integrity and that of everyone who has worked to create a community newspaper that the whole of our community has embraced — personal integrity that you imply is wholly and non-negotiably incompatible with our participating in a loan program designed to help microenterprises.

    For the record, the municipal loan program is a revolving loan fund — a pot of state and federal Small Business Administration money that is made available for businesses in the community that do not qualify for conventional financing. Our nonprofit, Vermont Independent Media (our federal 990 form is available on request), did not fit that mold, and we needed a combination of community donations and financing to fulfill our mission: to provide a better source of reporting with integrity.

    The loan decision was made by a separate committee of representatives from the community and one Selectboard member (DeGray). It is a win-win: we get some operating expenses to make the leap to a weekly publication schedule at a low interest rate (3 percent), the fund makes a little money to then lend to other operations in the community who meet the qualifications for the program.

    During the final Selectboard approval process, members of the board praised our tough and thorough coverage of issues and actually challenged us to keep doing the same — none more so than one board member who politically leans quite differently from our editorial staff and board of directors.

    More to the point, we have our integrity. While I can’t think of a scenario where our coverage of the town would be compromised, we would be the first to write about it and expose it if any aspect of this loan were to threaten the ethics of what we do.

    That said, would I have preferred that we get our funding from another source? Probably, if only to avoid wasting my time responding to this inane scolding. But if we were to get our loan from a conventional source, would we be suspected of collusion and conflict of interest with any story involving Brattleboro Savings and Loan? Or to the generous souls who have given money to Vermont Independent Media to launch and sustain this community project?

    The fact is, in real life, conflicts will always arise, some big, others small. Car dealers will threaten pull their ad if you don’t publish that grip-n-grin. (I wouldn’t publish it; maybe others might.) There’s always the hue and cry of “cancel my subscription.” (That has never bothered me.)

    Economic consequences abound whenever journalism intersects with commerce, and the media enterprise and its own operations cannot exist in a vacuum, as much as we like. Whether we’re talking about the old media, the new media, independent media, or the mainstream media, each carries uncomfortable personal and professional conflicts. All we can do is act with dignity and personal ethics and hold ourselves accountable to the community we cover — not to purists.

    So, Dan Kennedy, I’m pretty steamed at you right now, but I genuinely invite you to come visit us — this newspaper and this community — and get to know us and our quirky, improbable — and growing — newspaper. I think you’ll actually like who we are and what we’re trying to do. Maybe you’ll even change your glib, snap judgment.

    And if you don’t, I will have to wonder what newspaper on God’s green earth would meet your standards. Or, put another way: if you insist this is a “bad idea,” do you have a better one? Or $25,000 you can give us for unrestricted ethical journalistic use?

    Heck, it’s tax-deductible.

    All the best,

    Jeff Potter
    Editor, The Commons

    P.S. Our Web site is under redevelopment, but anyone curious can download a PDF of our last monthly issue — the one pictured on this post — at http://www.commonsnews.org/site/assets/PDF/COMM-0051.pdf. Please be forewarned that it’s a large file.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Jeff: If not contacting you was a failure on my part, shouldn’t you be able to back that up with evidence that such failure led to errors? Most bloggers do little or no original reporting, but those of us who take it seriously rely on the good journalism of others in offering our own commentary. In my case, I relied on the Vermont Public Radio report to which Bill Densmore linked. Looks like VPR got it just right. As I wrote in my post, I have no doubt that all of you are well-intentioned. But you have compromised your independence. The vehemence of your, @Elizabeth’s and @Fran’s responses suggests that I have struck a nerve.

  8. Paula Melton

    Dan, I appreciate your concern. However, before you continue sneering about the journalistic integrity of an entire town, please understand that the loan is not actually municipal money.

    But even so, I’m wondering if you’ve ever heard of this little media outfit on the other side of the Atlantic, called the BBC?

  9. Jeff Potter

    Well, Dan, I thought my whole post was backing up with evidence that we have not compromised our independence, but clearly, I have failed to convince you. That’s OK; reasonable people can disagree.

    And yes, VPR got it just right — that we were availing ourselves of a small business loan program that dozens of other small businesses contribute to and which is only superficially and technically signed off with Selectboard approval. As was the loan I took for the last newspaper I owned, made payable to the Town of Greenfield, through a similar program administered by a local community development corporation.

    Maybe I didn’t make it clear. There is no conflict of interest. This is a technicality, a legal quirk that is a part of the program. Ergo, your entire post pointlessly denigrated my newspaper.

    And you’re damn right you struck a nerve.

    Why? Not because you hit on an uncomfortable truth of any sort. It’s because it’s Friday night and I’m still at my office.

    Until recently, I have been the only editorial employee of this newspaper, responsible for all the editing, production, and design of this newspaper, as well as administering the computer network. And programming the website. I have slept in my office chair here and several months ago worked a 51-hour day to make deadline when the pace of our growth outstripped our organization’s ability for me to hire help. Until two months ago, I also designed all the ads for the paper. (Oops — shouldn’t have told you. Conflict of interest there.)

    This is all to produce a thoughtful newspaper with integrity. I have moved heaven and earth to do a good job; so have all my freelance writers and my colleagues. I have not sold out. You struck a nerve because if I accept your premise as valid, my professional life is a lie.

    When someone impugns my ethics and judgment and that of my colleagues and employers, it is as demoralizing and hurtful as it is unfair. We are the good guys. We are more than well-intentioned. We are doing damn good work and beginning to serve our community. The loan makes it possible for us to become the paper we need to be.

    And with that, I’m going home.

  10. BP Myers

    @Jeff Potter says: For the record, the municipal loan program is a revolving loan fund — a pot of state and federal Small Business Administration money that is made available for businesses in the community that do not qualify for conventional financing.

    Can’t wait to read your sizzling expose of the Small Business Adminstration.

  11. Josh Stearns

    Dan – you and I have differences of opinion on many of the issues you raised in this post, and I don’t know enough about this particular situation yet to weigh in, but to say it’s complicated. Given that I’m right down the road I hope to make it up to talk with Jeff sometime soon. I am more optimistic then you are and less willing to say so quickly that taking such a loan automatically, de-facto undercuts independence.

    All that said, it is worth noting that the Federal Trade Commission this week released their draft policy proposals regarding journalism, and Small Business Administration money (like that which Jeff refers too) was one thing on the table. The FTC is looking into whether SBA loans could go to news orgs, or could be used as loan guarantees to help news orgs get better rates on loans. To see this and other policy ideas they are mulling over (many of which I have problems with, others I support), you can download their report here: http://ftc.gov/opp/workshops/news/jun15/docs/new-staff-discussion.pdf

  12. Connie Evans

    Have to say, I’m amazed that you read Susan Keese’s piece as being a criticism of The Commons. I read it as a celebration that a true community newspaper, that gives voice to those often unheard, has found an opportunity to do much more.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Connie: I read Keese’s story neither as criticism nor as a celebration. I read it as news.

  13. Howard Owens

    Can’t we all agree that there is no source of revenue for a news organization that is not without taint.

    Advertising leads to the possibility that your coverage will favor advertisers.

    Public money leads to the possible reality or perception that you will pursue a governmentality agenda.

    Donations leave you vulnerable to the influence of key donors and your board members.

    In the end, the judgement should not be about the source of your revenue but the integrity of your coverage.

    The Batavian is funded at the moment purely by advertising, and that hasn’t prevented us from doing stories like this. But neither am I ashamed that we’ve done pieces like this.

    Both pieces fit within our editorial mission to reflect life in our community.

    Batavia also has a revolving grant/loan program — in one version of it, I could apply for $30,000 and if I met the criteria of the grant (such as creating new jobs), only $15,000 of it would need to be repaid. I’ve not applied for this program, but not out of concern that it would compromise my integrity — though I’ve certainly been aware I’d receive a good deal of criticism from media pundits — but because it hasn’t made business sense. If it ever does, I will at least take a serious look at the option. (If I have any philosophical issue with it, it is a libertarian view that government shouldn’t fund business, and that also held me back at my most serious point of considering it, and I’ve feel far more vulnerable on a point of criticism – especially from readers — than a journalistic integrity issue.)

    Just to be honest — there are lot more serious things to worry about that can compromise coverage in a small town that leave no paper trail. The issues of conflict that leave paper trails — loans, grants, donations, advertising — are pretty bright line issues, so if you’re a person of integrity you’re going to realize that and make your judgements accordingly. But in a community news, there are all kinds of slippery slopes to guard against. I try to watch those, too, but it isn’t always easy. And those issues are going to be much harder for a media pundit to watchdog.

    I hope everything I do I do with integrity. I work to be mindful of those issues at all times. But I am getting more grey hair every day. So Peter has my full empathy. I say, watch what he does after he gets the money. Judge him on that standard, not that he is taking a business risk — a LOAN — to try and grow his business. He’s really going out on a limb, and I think that requires more applause than criticism.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Howard: Just to be clear, I haven’t challenged anyone’s integrity. I have written that The Commons has given up its independence, which, I would argue, is simply a factual observation. “Integrity” implies a moral judgment, and I’m not judging @Jeff’s morals.

      You’re right — everything a news organization does to bring in revenue carries with it the potential conflict. But there are gradations. The least problematic is a wide and diverse base of advertisers and, when possible, payments from readers. The most problematic is assistance from the very government you are trying to cover. (This wouldn’t be so bad if The Commons had been able to apply directly to the SBA rather than to the selectmen.) Everything else is somewhere in the middle.

      For an example of someone who just completely sold out after getting a city-facilitated loan, follow the link to Adam Reilly’s Boston Phoenix piece on the Bay State Banner.

      But let’s say The Commons soon kicks the living hell out of the select board. Aren’t they opening themselves up to accusations that they went overboard in order to prove their independence? There’s just no good way around this.

      I’m sure we are talking about good, well-meaning (if extremely thin-skinned!) people trying their best to put out a worthwhile community newspaper. But they have saddled themselves with a conflict that’s not going away.

  14. Sarah Perdue

    Dan,

    Stop defending yourself for a moment. Download the pdf of The Commons via the link that Jeff Potter provided and read it.

    In an era when most local papers are filling their pages with news service articles that their readers have already seen online or on TV, The Commons presents local news with excellent design.

    Jeff Potter has over 25 years experience in the news industry and is known for his integrity. He is correct, you erred by using the VPR report as your only source and failing to contact him personally.

    It is easy to read the news, sit behind a keyboard and publish strongly opinionated blogs. I challenge you to be more balanced and careful with your judgements of others.

    Sarah

  15. Elizabeth Seal

    I though the point of the blog was to strike nerves? Otherwise, no one would read it, right? It must be nice to write nothing but opinion for a living. It also must be nice to be able to publish and be accountable to no one. Ah, if only newspapers had that kind of “independence.”

  16. pris robichaud

    ‘Thin skinned’ is such a snarky remark. You made a judgement of ‘The Common’ based on one report, and your own idea of ethics in journalism. I cannot imagine writing a piece without talking to the source of your argument. Isn’t the basis of ethics obtaining both sides of the facts before recommendations?

  17. BP Myers

    @Elizabeth Seal said: It must be nice to write nothing but opinion for a living. It also must be nice to be able to publish and be accountable to no one.

    It’s too late now, however in the future, I’d suggest you click the “About” link before commenting. It is sure to save you embarrassment.

    @pris robichaud said: I cannot imagine writing a piece without talking to the source of your argument.

    Not quite sure what “the source of your argument” means, but as Dan noted above, nobody has yet taken issue with any facts that he presented.

    Except me, that is, with his totally incorrect opinion about The Newshour.

  18. pris robichaud

    @BP Meyers

    It is not the facts in question, it is his rash to judgement of the editor of The Common. I understand his critique, but calling those who defend The Common ‘thin skinned’ is just plain snarky.

  19. L.K. Collins

    This is not the first time that our esteemed host has gone on a rant based on his first, and likely erroneous, impression and has failed actually to see the efficacy of the action that Mr. Potter and his paper have taken.

    Dan, you are an avid champion of context, and once again you have failed to learn, or flat-out ignored, the context of this situation. You have held to your idealistic — and ultimately impractical — dream-world, academic view.

    You have also failed to give careful consideration to Mr. Potter’s response. Even with his sputtering anger, he has made a lot more sense with his response than you did in either your original screed or your give-back-as-little-as-possible defenses.

    You made the error of poor preparation and unsubstantiated assumption.

    Just admit it, and move on.

  20. Howard Owens

    I’ve been a journalist for 25 years. I’ve been a blogger for 8.

    As a journalist and a blogger, there’s no valid criticism of Dan regarding the nature or content of this post.

    I find statements like this, “It is easy to read the news, sit behind a keyboard and publish strongly opinionated blogs” to be just plain ill-informed.

    It’s one thing to disagree with Dan’s conclusions, but it’s shallow attempts to denigrate his authority on the topic tells us more about the writer than Dan Kennedy.

  21. Mike Benedict

    The good folks at The Commons have offered up compelling defense: their product is superior to the competitors'; they needed the money to survive; we can trust their integrity; and they work really, really hard (or at least, really, really late).

    But no one seems to be arguing Dan’s main point: That this is a case where full disclosure doesn’t do much to obviate the simple fact that, when money is involved, there will always be the appearance of a conflict of interest. And most ethics experts would agree that the appearance of a conflict of interest is as concerning as an actual conflict a interest.

    (Also, could all involved please stop misspelling “judgment?” We all have our typos, but this has become an epidemic.)

  22. Aaron Read

    @Julie: Public radio does great journalism, but receives very little public money. It could survive without it.

    Yes and no…”very little” depends on the station. At smaller stations, the annual Community Service Grants from CPB (which is technically independent, although its funding comes from Congress) can easily be 20 to 40% of a station’s annual budget. At behemoths like WBUR, it’s probably more like 5%.

    I’m not including the one-shot grants like for HD Radio digital conversion that CPB and the US Dep’t of Commerce (PTFP) often does because they’re usually for upgrades, not for core equipment…and thus theoretically could be “lost” with much less impact.

    However, there’s a key difference here: most public radio stations are airing the “usual suspects” of public radio fare: Morning Edition and All Things Considered, plus the usual menagerie of nationally-produced programs like Fresh Air, TOTN, etc. Those shows, produced at NPR, PRI and APM, are at institutions big enough that federal funding is a fairly small percentage of their budgets.

    So even if the local affiliate is heavily dependent on federal funding…the source of much of their programming is not.

    This is not the case with local newspapers, which may run a lot of content from the Associated Press…but are expected to write a lot of local articles, too. So there’s much less of a buffer between a government money source and the actual journalists.

  23. L.K. Collins

    Most are not buying Dan’s side because they have looked into it and concluded that Dan’s argument has little to recommend it.

    Mr. Owen’s rejection of the critique of Dan solely on the basis of being a journalist for 25 years and a blogger for 8 has all the consoling ring of “I’m from the U.S. Government, trust me!”

    He may find Dan’s position believable and defensible, but most of the others commenting do not.

    Mr. Owen should have stuck with his earlier statement:

    “In the end, the judgement (sic) should not be about the source of your revenue but the integrity of your coverage. “

    And Dan should have reviewed the integrity of Mr. Potter’s coverage before he leapt off his idealistic cliff!

  24. Aaron Read

    Tell me Mr. Collins, how exactly are readers supposed to know the difference between an actual conflict of interest and merely the appearance of one?

  25. Bob Rottenberg

    OK — I’ll bite.

    First, I’m on the board of the Commons and on its finance committee. I pushed hard for the loan because it made so much sense to us.

    Second, Yes — there is always the possibility that we will start treating the Brattleboro Selectboard, as well as all other functions of town government, with kid gloves. But there’s really only one to find out: read the paper consistently over the course of the next few years until the loan is fully repaid and we’re then “free” to be as super-critical of the town as we’d like.

    We have a special deal available right now: for $45, we’ll mail a copy of every week’s issue to your address so that you can keep close tabs on how well we’re doing. Check our website for details!

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Bob: Here’s the problem: There’s also a chance that The Commons will start kicking the hell out of the selectboard even when it doesn’t deserve it because you are bending over backwards to assert your independence. Or that you will seem to be covering the board fairly yet not report negative stories your readers have a right to know. Or that you will be doing a perfectly fair job, but some of your readers will suspect that you are going easy because you have created the appearance of a conflict of interest.

      I am honestly not trying to pile on or be overly harsh. But journalism is a business in which reporters routinely are told they may not accept lunch from a source lest they appear to be in the tank. I think a $25,000 loan administered by the very officials you are trying to hold accountable amounts to considerably more than lunch. So far, all we have heard is that your paper fulfills an important function, that you work hard and that you needed the money. I never doubted any of that. As I wrote in my initial post, I was sure you were earnest and well-meaning. I still believe that.

      Several years ago, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote a book called “The Elements of Journalism.” It consists of nine key principles. Numbers four and five are relevant here:

      4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

      5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.

      The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics speaks to this as well. It’s long, but here’s the relevant section:

      — Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

      — Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.

      — Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.

      Contrary to the assumptions of many here, I took a look at your paper before I wrote my item. I looked again after the comments started to pile up. It seems like a pretty good community paper, and I have little doubt it will continue to be moving forward. But you have put yourself in a difficult position that your continued good work can help ameliorate but not eliminate entirely. Imagine if a reporter accepted a weekend at an expensive vacation getaway owned by a local official, and his response was that he should only be judged by the fairness of his coverage. He would no longer have a job, would he?

      I wish you all the best. I also hope you and the people you work with will stop personalizing this and start thinking seriously about the ethics of your craft.

  26. L.K.Collins

    You do it, Mr. Read, a) by not believing everything you read or hear, no matter what the source, and b) by doing enough independent investigation to have a reasonable basis to make the assertion of guilt or innocence of the crime of conflict of interest.

    In the spirit of our legal system’s presumption, the accused is innocent until proven guilty.

    Dan made the error of opining first and investigating later, if he as even made the effort to do so. It appears as if he has blown-off Mr. Potter’s response as being irrelevant. I wonder if he has availed himself of the URL to the PDF of the last edition?

    Mr. Rottenberg, I would suggest that you send Dan a complimentary subscription so that he can see for himself what your track record is. In a year or so, you can call upon him for his considered opinion of your performance.

    He may not read it. But he could not claim that he didn’t have the chance to keep tabs without further straining credibility.

    I would also like to make note that Callie Crossley, one of Dan’s colleagues at WGBH, seems to have no problems with having Howard Manly, Executive Editor, Bay State Banner as a guest on her Callie Crossley Show with some regularity. You know, the Bay State Banner, the publication that Dan sees as having sold out.

    It seems to me that Ms. Crossley has fairly low tolerance for conflicts of interest and sell-outs. Care to comment, Dan, on her guest selections?

    (BTW, Ms. Crossley’s show is one of the most informative hours of talk radio in the dial these days. I encourage people to listen.)

  27. Jeff Potter

    OK, Dan. Points well taken. I wasn’t going to weigh in here again, but I do want to thank you, genuinely, for a more thoughtful, reasoned, useful response and clarification.

    Instead, I’d rather direct this discussion toward a reasonable and practical conclusion, if I may ask you and your readers.

    Where do you propose small, local news operations get capitalization when all the small business assistance programs of this nature I have seen are operated out of municipal accounts? And how would you propose that small newspapers handle similar ethical appearances from any other funding source, i.e. banks, credit unions, in its news coverage?

    Nowhere in more than two dozen comments have I seen you or anyone else suggest an actual, helpful, real-world financial alternative.

    And if I appeared to sputter or was overly thin-skinned Friday, it’s because I genuinely DO care about these issues and need practical, real-world advice for making business realities congruent with best practices in journalism.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Jeff: Thank you for jumping back in. I think it’s a real problem that the loan programs you’re eligible for are funneled through local officials. And it’s not just that you can’t take advantage of such loans without appearing to have a conflict of interest. It also puts way too much power in the hands of local officials who might be quite happy to see a nettlesome watchdog die for lack of funds. The Commons is not a bagel shop or a brewery, to cite the two examples mentioned by Dick DeGray. To the extent that public funds are going to be used to help news organizations (something I’m not crazy about, but never mind), there ought to be a way of ensuring that people like you and @Bob Rottenberg don’t have to file your application with the very people you’re covering.

      What about other conflicts? You cite banks and credit unions. As we know, any type of payment can create conflicts, most definitely including not wanting to offend an advertiser. All I can say is that newspapers have been living off bank loans and advertising from time immemorial, and some papers handle those conflicts better than others. But I also think that going easy on a car dealership for fear of losing ads is a lot less harmful to a paper’s core mission than becoming financially entangled with the local government. I’m sure you recognize that what you’ve done is out of the ordinary — otherwise, Vermont Public Radio wouldn’t have done a story and our mutual acquaintance Bill Densmore wouldn’t have flagged it.

      What alternatives are there? Perhaps you went to the bank and were turned down. Perhaps you went straight to the selectboard because it was offering the best deal around. I don’t know. The non-profit news site I’m most familiar with is the New Haven Independent. You might find it interesting that its editor and publisher, Paul Bass, won’t even solicit legal ads from the city because it could create the appearance of a conflict. (At an affiliated site, the Valley Independent Sentinel, he does solicit legals, because he is the publisher but not the editor.)

      Instead, the NHI relies on a combination of grants from local foundations, advertising and reader donations. It’s done pretty well. There is no print edition, which holds costs down. And because New Haven is an economically distressed urban area, there is a robust foundation structure to tap. (Bass also happens to be very good at tapping that structure.) The Knight Foundation has provided major funding for the Valley site, but not for New Haven. The NHI seems to be on track to survive comfortably for the next couple of years, but Bass is trying to figure out how to make it self-sustaining.

      Because all financial entanglements create conflicts, the NHI has occasionally been accused of favoring the foundations from which it receives money. I see this as no different from favoring the car dealership that is your biggest advertiser, and, again, a long way from getting a grant or loan from the local government.

      Don’t know if you’ve considered trying to put together a network of “angels.” If five people gave $5,000 each, or if 25 gave $1,000 each, you’d have your $25,000. And you wouldn’t even have to pay it back. That might seem impossible, and maybe it is in a small town like Brattleboro. But it’s also pretty affluent, if I’m not mistaken. Surely there are some public-spirited community folks looking for a local, independently run alternative to Dean Singleton’s Reformer and to iBrattleboro.

      I’ve been thinking a lot about the angry reaction I sparked by you and others. I do think I followed standard blogging practice in that there was no need for me to re-report a story that had already been well-reported by a legitimate news organization. I know of very few unpaid bloggers who pick up the phone or send e-mail inquiries except on rare occasions. For that matter, relying on the good journalism of other news orgs is pretty standard practice even for writing op-ed pieces for print publications. In retrospect, though, I wish I had given you a head’s-up. I write almost exclusively about Boston-area and national media, and they have long since become accustomed to my opinion-mongering, to the extent that they pay any attention to me at all. I realize that my post must have looked like a plane had flown over Brattleboro and dumped the contents of its commode on the town common. I apologize for my lack of manners in not letting you know what was coming, though not for anything I wrote.

      As @Josh Stearns wrote in his comments, there is a vigorous debate under way regarding the role of government in funding journalism at a time when the for-profit newspaper business no longer seems to be viable, and he and I often find ourselves on opposite sides of that issue. Although I think you made a mistake, I see no reason why it should be a fatal one. I sincerely wish you the best with The Commons.

  28. L.K.Collins

    Right, Dan.

    You’re now afraid they’ll bend over backwards to be critical.

    You can’t have it both ways. You have been beaten up for having criticized them for the potential of being overly friendly to the Selectmen. So you are now being fair and balanced for criticizing them for be potential of going too far as the faithful watchdog of the public’s interest.

    I am sure that The Common’s readers appreciate your heartfelt concern.

    BTW, can’t help but notice that you’re doing a little moon walking here. More of the give-back-as-little-as-you-have-to-make-it-go-away approach.

  29. Martin Langeveld

    [Full disclosure: I have been an unpaid advisor to the Commons, but not in relation to this loan]

    I think you have to make a distinction between (A) the journalistic ethics principles that Dan quotes above, and (B) financial opportunities that are available across the board to any business.

    In category A, whether it’s a free lunch, a bottle of Scotch at Christmas, or a cruise down the Nile, clearly “favors … and special treatment” extended specifically to journalists are out of bounds. That’s not what’s going on here, though.

    In category B, we have not only small-business loan programs like this, but a host of tax dodges and other benefits available in some cases only to newspapers, for example: sales-tax exemptions granted specifically to newspapers in many states (applying not only to sales of the product itself, but to purchases, by the newspaper, of production equipment — an exemption not available to other manufacturers of goods or producers of services).

    Our old friend Billy Bulger was a particular critic of this exemption in Massachusetts, where he was president of the state senate, and once engineered a change in the sales tax law changing the language listing taxable stuff from “excluding” the production of newspapers to “including” the production of newspapers, forcing the publishers into protracted litigation and lobbying to regain their “special treatment.”

    Also under category B, publishers sometimes invoke the First Amendment for business purposes not directly related to the free exercise of journalism — for example when publishers insist on the right to clutter urban streets with vending machines, a right that has been upheld in numerous court decisions on First Amendment grounds. (Imagine Coca-Cola trying to get a parallel right to chain its vending machines to any old lamppost.)

    There’s a pretty clear line between category A and category B. Publishers would be fools not to take advantage of broadly available category B government benefits. Some category B benefits — such the special sales tax treatment or the vending machine privilege described above — are questionable if they’re available only to publishers (and as a side discussion, I’d be interested if Dan is in favor of nixing such “special treatments”), but this loan program is not a special favor; it’s broadly available to any qualifying small business.

    Would it have been better for the Commons to stay away from this option? Sure, if something similar had been available via another program, a local bank, or a private benefactor. But there wasn’t, and the organization’s choices were either to remain a relatively ineffective and financially precarious monthly, or to take the loan in order to become a stronger and more stable weekly voice in its community.

    Dan, we can assume, would have it remain a background voice as a monthly, or go under, rather than take the loan. But I think Jeff and the Commons board made the right choice, and the Brattleboro area will be enriched by it.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Martin: Just a quick response to your last paragraph. Your assumption is incorrect, as you will see from my last comment to @Jeff.

  30. BP Myers

    @Jeff Potter said: Nowhere in more than two dozen comments have I seen you or anyone else suggest an actual, helpful, real-world financial alternative.

    Seems Dan mentioned something about “a wide and diverse base of advertisers and, when possible, payments from readers.” If you don’t have those things, maybe you cannot support a newspaper. Bigger newspapers than yours fail all the time.

    On the other hand, we all know the trouble the newspaper business is in. Perhaps you’re on the vanguard of something and more and more papers will go this route. Or maybe, you will grow your readership such that you can eschew such things in the future and this was a one-time visit to the well.

    I do suspect if I lived in your area and enjoyed your product, I’d be pleased you did what you had to do to survive. But there is no doubt there’s an appearance of a conflict. Your readers will have to make their own judgment.

  31. Howard Owens

    Various thoughts spurred by the ongoing discussion.

    First, I’ll say again, the attacks on Dan are unfair. He’s done nothing out of bounds journalisticly in using others reporting to form an opinion and state it. It’s also not a foolish or outlandish opinion. It’s quite legitimate, even if I don’t wholly agree. It’s just one of my pet peeves that people attack the person with a position rather than the position itself (not that I haven’t been guilty of that myself).

    I will say, I find Dan’s suggestion that a local news site find donors willing to pony up $1K or $5K far more troubling than the taking a loan through the government body.

    And this is a point where I’ve always been troubled with the suggestion in some journalistic circles that the future of local journalism is or should be non-profit.

    Generally, to form as a non-profit, you need a board of directors. Who is going to be on that board? Some of the most prominent people in town — the very people you most need to cover.

    And when you start taking donations, your largest donors — the ones who will give $1K or $5K are the most connected and involved people in the community — the very people you need to maintain some degree of independence from and the last you should have any dependence on.

    True, business-minded investors aren’t going to pay much attention to the small, local-only, disruptive news start up because that actual ROI will seem too small in real dollars, or the pay-off to long to realize. This compounds the potential conflicts associated with taking such “angel” money.

    What if the mayor’s brother is the largest car dealer in town and he gives you $5K? Where’s your independence then? Or what if one of the largest property owners in town — who owns some rentals that some consider slums — gives you $1K? Are people going to believe that you’re fairly covering accusations of code violations at those properties?

    In Ann Arbor, the maximum per-year political contribution is $250, so the Ann Arbor Chronicle caps its annual donor contribution at $250 per person. If you’re going to take donations from local residents, this strikes me as a good rule of thumb.

    The problems with the loan that Dan raises strike me as primarily post-loan concerns, chief among them as to how to fairly cover the selectmen after the loan is approved.

    To me, this is a rather minor concern. The loan is made. It’s all part of a written contract now. There’s little that can be done to change it so long as both sides abide by the contract.

    It’s also important to remember that it took X number of votes to get the loan approved (I’ll guess 3 yes votes on a 5-member board). That makes any level of mutual influence pretty defuse.

    If this program is standard, there are probably some strict objective criteria that must be met in order for the the loan to even get to a vote. Once those criteria are met, the vote shouldn’t be based on subjective considerations (to do so would open the door to a lawsuit).

    In other words, there’s some degree of insulation between the process and granting of the loan that diminish concerns about any compromise to journalistic independence.

    Such concerns are not completely mitigated, merely greatly diminished.

    But here’s where there can be legitimate concerns:

    — Prior to the loan, what if the selectmen consider making the geographic area the businesses can be in to qualify bigger, thereby making the loan more competitive for a limited pool of money. How does a news organization still in the consideration process fairly cover that?

    — Prior to the loan, the local news org hears that some businesses are in default on their loans. Since this is a revolving loan, defaults reduce the amount of money to loan, threatening the program. To get the list of defaults, you’ll need to FOIL/FOIA the documents, which looks like a conflict right there. How do you cover this while you’re in the application process?

    — After the loan, a local developer applies for a CDBG loan and it becomes controversial because either the nature of the project or who that business owner is, and as a news org that has taken similar government assistance, how do you cover that?

    Now, keep in mind, I’ve said before, all forms of funding for journalism comes with liabilities.

    William Allen White built a newspaper that eventually rose above its five other competitors to become the only newspaper left standing in Emporia, Kan. If he hadn’t gotten the Republican printing contract in his first year of business, he probably wouldn’t have survived the year.

    Most newspaper publishers of his era relied on such “subsidies.”

    The fact of the matter is, people like Jeff are trying to navigate through business waters that are often murky and treacherous. It simply isn’t realistic to apply the standards of rich, well-established, monopolistic news orgs on small, disruptive start ups.

  32. Bill Densmore

    Well, I guess I started this and I certainly don’t want to end it because the discussion is important. I know Jeff, and Dan and Martin well and integrity is not an issue here, anywhere. The topic’s of keen interest, because we’ve re-established a non-profit in Williamstown, Mass., where I live, and hope to launch http://www.williamstownbeat.org (pre-alpha now), later in the summer, web only.

    So where do you turn to fund the development of such a service? We are seeking private donor and foundation money and, when launched, will seek advertising and sponsorship. To the extent it is local, every person or foundation who writes a check is going to create a conflicts issue for us, just as every law firm has to run a conflicts check when it takes on a new client.

    I think the first issue here is transparency. It’s too bad that The Commons’ competing news and blog outfits didn’t substantively pick up on this locally, leaving it to VPR. But, now it’s out there and I agree with folks who say the proof is in the pudding — watch The Commons’ coverage of the town.

    If things get awkward, and there is alternative funding available, the Commons’ could — perhaps should — prepay the loan. But what are the interests of the replacement money?

    I’m proud to know all the people involved here — including Howard out in Batavia. This is tough work — reinventing the financial foundations of journalism, and changing and morphing journalism as we go along. It will challenge ethical assumptions. And as we talk about it, as we’re doing here, we’ll get better at it.

  33. Mike Benedict

    @Howard Owens: “Generally, to form as a non-profit, you need a board of directors. Who is going to be on that board? Some of the most prominent people in town — the very people you most need to cover.”

    This need not be. I spent 6 years at a 501(c)(3), so I have some familiarity with this. There’s no reason the paper could not go outside the town/area of news coverage for its directors.

    “What if the mayor’s brother is the largest car dealer in town and he gives you $5K? Where’s your independence then?”

    Any reason why this couldn’t be dealt with by structuring all donations as anonymous, to be funneled through a bank or clearinghouse so that the paper has no way of knowing who gave what, if anything?

  34. Howard Owens

    @ Mike: “Any reason why this couldn’t be dealt with by structuring all donations as anonymous, to be funneled through a bank or clearinghouse so that the paper has no way of knowing who gave what, if anything?”

    How you prevent the town from knowing. How do you prevent the car dealer from bragging? Also, there would still be the taint of, “I bet that car dealer’s illegal flag pole has never been covered in YYYY is because I bet he made a donation.”

    I just don’t believe there is any pure method of funding journalism.

    And full disclosure and transparency is the best way to deal with the unavoidable taint of money.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Howard: I understand what you’re saying. However, not to be repetitive (in other words, to be repetitive), I still think going to the very government you are trying to hold accountable is the least pure method of all.

  35. Howard Owens

    In respect, Dan, I think you’re hung up on the government aspect and ignoring the nature of the source of funding:

    — Revolving loan
    — Business contract
    — Multiple people with a say in distribution of funds (checks and balances)
    — And just the sure fact of the public nature, full disclosure involved.

    It’s not like some government body just handed the Commons a pot full of money. It must be repaid, for one thing. The Commons had to meet certain criteria to be funded. These things make it more like a bank loan than a government grant.

    The funding is not without taint, but I just don’t see this is a bright line case of an ethical breach.

    It’s better fodder for discussion about the ethical waters journalism must navigate when it comes to funding.

  36. Mike Benedict

    @Howard Owens: “How you prevent the town from knowing. How do you prevent the car dealer from bragging? Also, there would still be the taint of, “I bet that car dealer’s illegal flag pole has never been covered in YYYY is because I bet he made a donation.”

    That’s a fair response, but consider that if all benefactors are anonymous, there’s the potential for lots of people to claim contributions that they didn’t give — which for me at least would undermine the believability of anyone who claims to be a donor. (If it’s OK to joke on Memorial Day, it’s kind of like politicians and military service.)

    The latter part of your observation would be a problem even if everyone was in the know, of course.

    I don’t disagree that transparency is the best policy, but under these circumstances it would appear the acceptance of any public or private monies brings to a boil the conflict of interest pot.

  37. Aaron Read

    Boil it down a little folks:

    When it comes to newspapers, money from advertisers is not the same as money from the government. Why? Because the advertisers usually (not always) have various permutations of market forces in play to also serve as a check on their actions.

    Governments do not have that. The sole way a government is accountable, if at all, is the election cycle. And for most communities, the chief way that the electorate is informed about elections is still the local newspaper.

    So when a newspaper creates a conflict of interest (or the appearance of one…and there really is no difference between the two) then suddenly the sole check on governmental power has been lost.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Aaron: You raise an important point. When a car dealer advertises in the local newspaper, he does so on the belief that he will sell more cars as a result. Thus if he chooses to withdraw his ads in protest, he knows in advance that it’s going to cost him a great deal of money.

      That discipline doesn’t exist with government funds. Government officials can simply use other people’s money to as a reward and as punishment with very little accountability.

  38. Aaron Read

    You do it, Mr. Read, a) by not believing everything you read or hear, no matter what the source, and b) by doing enough independent investigation to have a reasonable basis to make the assertion of guilt or innocence of the crime of conflict of interest.

    @LK Collins: if I did all that work, why the hell would I bother reading the newspaper in the first place?

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