The announcement that ArtsGreensboro, the service organization serving that North Carolina community, will be funding arts coverage in the Greensboro News & Record, is being portrayed as something akin to sponsorship of public radio programming.
Writing in that newspaper, ArtsGreensboro President and CEO Thomas Philion writes:
Inspired by arts supporters who understood these realities, ArtsGreensboro invited the News & Record to explore how we might work together to increase arts coverage, including bringing back reviews of theater, dance, music and exhibitions.
The result is an innovative agreement similar to the underwriting model for public broadcasting. The News & Record maintains its editorial independence, while ArtsGreensboro helps make that expanded coverage possible — with no strings attached.
In our agreement, the News & Record has committed to publishing at least 70 stories about local arts topics during the next year. That’s 70 more stories than we would have published without this agreement.
I have no doubt that at the outset, everyone is going into this with the very best of intentions. Gauger addresses the potential for conflict, and conflict of interest, in a communication with journalism watchdog Jim Romanesko:
Of course we’ll cover ArtsGreensboro aggressively where our news values dictate that we must, even if the organization doesn’t welcome some of the coverage.
We’ve long been able to negotiate the occasional expectation from advertisers that doing business with us should create a safe zone for them. This is different only insofar as the underwriting support pays for news coverage directly while advertising support for journalism is one step removed. But the potential need to act independently in the face of complaints and even financial consequences would be no different in this case, given the right future circumstances.
I have a lot of questions, largely rhetorical, since it will take time for this new paradigm to play out.
1. Why has the News & Record been unable to do the arts coverage they’d like to do? I don’t know the paper, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they are not in conversation with any sports foundation to underwrite their athletic coverage. Are there other areas where their coverage has been diminished or eliminated and it will only be restored or expanded with support from an outside entity? Have the arts been singled out as uniquely disposable?
2. The public radio comparison seems a false equivalency, since the News & Record is a for-profit company. In fact, it’s owned, per Romanesko, by Warren Buffett. Instead of being comparable to foundation sponsorship of public radio programming, this is almost tantamount to ArtsGreensboro paying for “advertorial” space without control of what is said. In that sense, it’s a peculiar variant of “native advertising,” advertising that looks like actual editorial content, which is being explored by countless print outlets.
When The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supports science programming on NPR (as I recall from many an on-air credit), they aren’t funding coverage of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The relationship at the News & Record is much more direct between funder and subject.
3. What if ArtsGreenboro, at some future date, experiences a funding problem, and can no longer sustain this underwriting? Does that mean the 70 pieces of arts reportage secured during the term of this first agreement will evaporate if the funding goes, and that journalists hired, full-time or freelance, will suddenly find themselves without work? The articles suggest that it was ArtsGreenboro who proposed this solution, so would the News & Record seek to replace that funding should it be lost, in order to maintain this new coverage?
4. Isn’t it possible that this plan will say to other newspapers, “Hey, you know that esoteric arts coverage? Those pages that generate very little advertising as compared with, say, the automotive section? Maybe someone will pay us to keep it in our paper. It worked in Greensboro.”? It’s not as if arts coverage isn’t already diminished across the country, so it would be easy for others to ape the Greensboro model.
5. I know from long experience that arts organizations generally have a bone to pick with their local critics, and often feature writers as well (I’m not validating this, just observing). What if the constituent organizations don’t like the quality or nature of the coverage they receive? What if some still feel left out? Even if the entities remain independent, couldn’t this lead to a brinksmanship situation where the arts might consider pulling their funding because the reportage simply isn’t up to snuff? But in doing so, will they then seal the fate of any future arts coverage?
6. If this arrangement is to be transparent to readers, arts organizations and other members of the media, has the cost of this sponsorship been made public? None of the pieces cited above make any mention of a price tag. I think that would be extremely informative, even if it did serve to provoke a new round of questions.
Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely want to see more and better arts coverage in all media, not just print. But the idea that journalism should be funded by the people and companies being covered seems contradictory to the very notion of an independent press, no matter how many “Chinese wall” or “church and state” metaphors you throw at it. If newspapers want outside funding in order to supplement the resources and insure the breadth of the reportage, perhaps they should consider becoming not-for-profit organizations themselves (this model does exist).
Is the arrangement between the News & Record and ArtsGreensboro an inspired solution to restore and preserve arts coverage, or has it just put that very coverage in major media on a slippery slope where money must change hands in order for the arts to be worthy of journalistic attention? Yes, I’m a skeptic. I hope my many fears are proven wrong.