Journalism on Sale

As workers in an ailing industry look for new ways to peddle their skills, piecework paid for directly by the public becomes an option.
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In 2005, Evelyn Pringle was freelancing articles to the Dayton Daily News. When she wanted to write an article critical of TeenScreen, a national effort to get primary care providers to check for signs of depression, she found no takers.

So the former drug and alcohol abuse counselor hit on an innovative way to finance her investigations into the pharmaceutical industry. She contacted law firms handling class action suits against drug companies. "They're looking for clients; I explained that my work would give publicity to the harms of the drugs," she says. She found enough takers to make a living.

Now, Pringle routinely pitches stories to the law firms; it may take several to fund a particular story. She submits the completed work to a raft of online sites that usually don't pay writers; sponsored articles end with a disclosure of who paid.

Attorneys at Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman; Vickory Waldner & Mallia; and Pogust Braslow Millrood are among her financiers, although none agreed to be interviewed.

Pringle is adamant that the lawyers aren't allowed to edit or shape her articles, which are often based on court documents and transcripts. She admits she has an agenda, that she writes commentary and opinion, not news: "I don't try to come across as fair and balanced." But she does make sure whatever she writes is accurate. "If I make one slipup, I know they'll file a lawsuit."

Pringle's methods may shock traditional journalists, used to keeping a "firewall" between the word people and the money people. The fear has always been that advertisers' concerns might sway reporting. In this world of digital media and Internet distribution, the line between so-called advertorial and editorial continues to blur. Consider, for example, an April TV news-style piece that Chevron commissioned for the Web to counteract a critical 60 Minutesreport on its operations in Ecuador.

Another fear is that cash-strapped news media may unwittingly or carelessly run these advocacy pieces alongside traditionally generated journalism, as happened with video news releases put out by businesses and the U.S. government.

But the Pringle approach may be gaining traction. Newspaper publishers have cut close to 9,000 jobs so far this year alone. As laid-off reporters fight for a shrinking number of freelance assignments and advertisers flee newspapers, the question becomes, if we want professional journalism, who's going to pay for it? Setting aside for this article the question of who pays for already-reported news repurposed by aggregators like The Huffington Post or Google News, who pays for fresh reporting?

At thousands of conferences, journalists and wannabes are told to reinvent themselves as pundits or media brands. Some high-profile journalists, such as former Wall Street Journal tech reporter Kara Swisher and former Business 2.0 writer Om Malik, have even set up their own ad-supported news sites.

Nor are journalists above taking charity. Philanthropies, some of which already offer fellowships for journalists, may help bridge the gap. The Kaiser Family Foundation recently launched Kaiser Health News, which employs staff and freelance health care writers.

Kaiser Health News provides articles free to print and online publications, including the Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and NPR.com. It also will begin operating as a full-fledged health news portal in June.

"We want to explain complex issues through the lens of journalism, with the hope that the public will understand them," says Matt James, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation. "We learned a long time ago that the information in newspapers, on the radio or on TV has a whole different life than just a report produced by any organization."

The Sandler Foundation created Pro Publica in 2007 to produce investigative journalism about stories with "moral force." Like Kaiser, it offers some stories gratis to publications and lets others be freely reprinted with attribution.

This story you're reading is still another example of public-good financing: Miller-McCune.com and Miller-McCune magazine are organs of the nonprofit Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, whose major benefactor so far is the for-profit academic publisher SAGE Publications.

It doesn't require millionaires to pay for good journalism, though. Spot.Us, a Web site funded by the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, lets freelance journalists — Miller-McCune contributor Bernice Yeung, for example — pitch stories directly to the public and name their fees. After reviewing the story idea and the writer's credits, people can pledge up to $20 each. Residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, have commissioned some 25 stories since November 2008.

Founder David Cohn wants partners in mainstream media to publish Spot.Us stories and, hopefully, to kick in some money. If a publisher buys exclusive rights to the content, donations are reimbursed. Otherwise content is made available through a Creative Commons license.

Cohn admits this person-to-person publishing model won't replace the professional newsroom. "Spot.Us is something freelance journalists can use to increase their work load," Cohn says. "It can also help news organizations increase their freelance budget."

If more journalists are in the pay of private organizations or individuals, do we need to worry about balance or bias? Yes, but no more than we ever have, according to Lee Wilkins, a Missouri School of Journalism professor.

Pointing to studies showing that advertisers affect the content of mainstream media, she says, "Journalistic independence still is an ethical value, and it needs to be retained and maintained. The issue is not where does money come from, but what does money do?"

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