Monday, February 17, 2014

Texas Tribune and Pay for Play Journalism

The topic of pay for play is hot in political circles in Harris county as early voting begins for the March 4 primary election.  It appears that pay for play is alive and well in the not for profit journalism world, too.  An excellent four part piece is up written by James Moore.  I encourage you to take a little time and read all of it.  It is quite an eye-opening look at some real ethical questions begging for answers.

The opening:

The Texas Tribune was supposed to be the best new idea to save journalism. Instead, it is destroying it. What believers hoped was going to be a watchdog has turned into a lapdog by taking big dollars from lobbyists and corporations.

You may remember that the Texas Tribune began with much fanfare.  It was a non-profit organization, to be supported by loyal readers and cool people all around Texas.  Evan Smith, the editor of Texas Monthly, was recruited to be CEO and executive editor of the Texas Tribune.  

As time has progressed, from that beginning in 2009, it seems the whole not for profit thing was harder than expected.  The answer to a need for a bigger cash flow?  Advertisement dollars.  Sponsorships, too.

If the readership of the Texas Tribune were to ever put together all of the relationships and fundraising and money making functionalities of the operation, they could be forgiven for their skepticism about the credibility of the journalism. The Trib is, by almost any definition, a pay for play operation, a digital protection racket where donations and sponsorships will prevent scrutiny of your issues and operations. And readers will never know what’s missing.
Mr. Moore, a seasoned political and media consultant, gives example after example of a descent into a pay for play system for journalism.  Whether it is round table discussions to promote a lobbyist's pet project or a panel discussion at their annual event -  Texas Tribune Festival - the deck appears to be stacked in favor of those writing the advertising and sponsorship checks.  

It is not unusual in conservative circles for the Texas Tribune to be called a liberal publication.  The question is why the journalists in Austin, in particular, allow this to continue.  Why haven't there been stories about this before Mr. Moore put the pieces together?  Are ethics in journalism dead?

No one has written about the Tribune’s hypocrisies and contradictions with any detail simply because they feared sounding petty or self-serving. Texas newspapers, some of which use the Tribune’s stories, can hardly be expected to criticize an editorial service they use or to publicly whine about unfair competition. The Quorum Report and Capitol Inside could expect its lobby and legislative information sources to go quiet because they, too, must function in a culture of cooperation that is implicit in the way business is conducted by the Texas Tribune. Politics is a cruel game. Journalism is not supposed to play it, though. Reporters are expected to cast little lights into dark corners and illuminate the way government works and who has influenced its decisions. The Texas Tribune rarely lives up to that mandate and, instead, takes big cash from the people and institutions it is supposed to hold accountable. Money is coming in the door as fast as integrity and credibility are running out. 
A conservative alternative to the Texas Tribune is now in play in Texas.  Rather quietly, Breitbart News launched Breitbart Texas.  Reading the list of contributors, it looks to be a mix of a couple of true reporters along with a couple of political bloggers and gadflys, a filmmaker, and a lobbyist who 'scores' the votes of the Austin crowd in hopes of getting his message out to voters.  What could go wrong?

Lots. Maybe their fate will not be the same as that now of the Texas Tribune. Keep your eyes open and pay attention to who is writing about what topic.

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