The Washington Post published a story of paramount importance last Friday. According to reporter Elahe Izadi, a website called the Checks and Balances Project is offering the sort of deep investigative reporting that most local news outlets no longer have the resources to carry out.

But there is a huge catch. There have been some prominent instances of pay-to-play, with organzations making donations that are followed by stories that will either make them look good or their enemies or competitors look bad. Izadi writes:

When it investigated the hotel industry, it was after it had received a grant from Airbnb. A high-profile investigation into Arizona utility regulators came after Checks and Balances received money from a solar power company, the company disclosed in 2015.

Now Checks and Balances is investigating a massive hospital system in Virginia named Sentara, publishing regular stories and asking patients and employees to send tips that might reveal how the nonprofit hospital “piled up $6 billion in liquid assets,” among other issues.

These stories started appearing the same month that a medical school in a complex dispute with Sentara hired a public relations firm that happens to share a founder and financial ties with Checks and Balances.

Communities are vulnerable to a site like Checks and Balances, of course, because of the demise of local news over the past generation. If your local newspaper shut down or has been so decimated that it can’t offer more than cursory news coverage, then you’re going to be vulnerable to arrangements like this.

The Checks and Balances website touts itself as an “Investigative Watchdog Blog
Holding Government Officials, Lobbyists and Corporate Management Accountable to the Public.” Izadi is careful to point out that the project has done good work over the years, some of which has been picked up by larger media outlets. Its editor was formerly employed by USA Today. Scott Peterson, the executive director, told the Post that funders do not influence the site’s journalism — but Izadi writes that those sources are not always disclosed to readers, either. Moreover, most of its funding comes from an organization called Renew American Prosperity, which does not reveal its donors. From the organization’s website:

We encourage you to be public about your identity as a donor. We’re proud to have the support of such notable funders as philanthropist Lucy Rockefeller Waletzky, legendary entrepreneur Brad Mattson of Siva Power, Silicon Valley attorney Mike Danaher, and communicator extraordinaire Matthew Lewis.

Should you want to keep your support for Renew American Prosperity private, as do others, we also welcome your donations. Private donor support will remain strictly private, out of respect for 501(c)4 tax law that allows donors who wish to be private to remain so. We will never sell or make available to other organizations our supporter lists.

Peterson pushed back on the notion that Checks and Balances isn’t transparent, arguing that what he’s doing is no different from what mainstream outlets do when they accept advertising or, in the case of nonprofits, grants and donations. And of course these things have to be seen on a continuum. When news executives decline to report an important story because they don’t want to offend an advertiser, that’s a scandal — if the public ever learns about it. Ethical nonprofit news outlets are scrupulous about disclosing the sources of their funding, and in making it clear to funders that they will have no influence over coverage. Checks and Balances, at least as described by the Post, appears to go beyond that.

The Post’s story comes at a time when we’re also dealing with the scourge of “pink slime” journalism — community websites set up in areas that are unserved or underserved by local news outlets and that are actually controlled by partisan political interests. As I wrote last fall, most of these sites are Republican, but some are Democratic as well. What they’re not is independent, which is a key part of ethical journalism.

Coming up with funding for investigative projects, especially at the local and regional level, is incredibly difficult, and the Checks and Balances folks may have believed they could cut ethical corners without it harming the integrity of their work. But it looks like dangerous business to me, and I hope it’s not the start of a trend.

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