Critical Thinking
Posted: 5/12/2014  |  By: Nu Yang
After ceasing print publication in 2009, the Fitchburg (Wis.) Star returned to print in March thanks to city hall pitching in more than $30,000 to help with the relaunch. Should newspapers accept financial support from a government it’s covering?  

Elliott Pratt, 21, senior, Western Kentucky University (Bowling Green, Ky.)
Pratt is a broadcast journalism major with an emphasis in broadcast news and is working on his minor in athletic coaching. He is the sports editor of the College Heights Herald, Western Kentucky University’s student-run bi-weekly newspaper. He is also contributes to the student-run television news station, News Channel 12, and sports show, The Extra Point.  

When the Fitchburg Star ceased its print publication, there was a reason for doing so. While it may be challenging to accept, the speedy progression towards online content is equally fading away the tradition of print publications.

If a news organization has the independent funds to support a print publication, that’s great. But when a local government— which the newspaper reports on—decides to fund a newspaper with taxpayers’ dollars so it can put a tangible publication in the community’s hands, that crosses ethical boundaries with strings attached.

In a small town like Fitchburg, the local newspaper is the top source of news that unifies the community. I come from a small town in Tennessee that relies heavily on a weekly newspaper as most of the population’s main source of news, so I understand the town’s desire to become better connected. But accepting money from a governing body the paper reports on comes with strings attached, no matter what.

There may be an agreement between the city and the paper that editorial independence is a necessity, but those agreements are easy to make during the honeymoon stage. 

What is going to happen after several months of publishing and the paper finds itself in a situation to be critical of the government? This creates conflicts of interest no matter what ‘agreement’ they may have in place.

This is an extremely sticky circumstance where biting the hand that feeds you could leave you starving. When and if the string is pulled, so goes the foundation in which the paper relies on.

It’s unethical to take gifts from a source, so if a paper were to take money from the government it covers, it is automatically at the mercy of the source of funding, it puts any editorial independence the paper has on the line and throws away all of its journalistic integrity.  

Steve Wagner, 41, editor, Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald
Wagner has been the editor of the Herald since April 2013. Previously, he was the editor at the Bemidji (Minn.) Pioneer and news director at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. Prior to newsroom management, Wagner worked as a reporter, covering crime, projects and investigative beats. He also worked at a Twins Cities suburban newspaper and daily newspapers in Waterloo and Fort Dodge, Iowa.    

Our nation’s founders recognized the importance of a free press when writing the Bill of Rights and establishing the foundation for the republic. More than two centuries have since passed, but the news media’s role as a government watchdog hasn’t diminished.

Each community has its unique set of challenges, and newspapers must balance those while meeting the standards of its readers. As a journalist valuing independence of the press and editorial autonomy, I’m uncomfortable mingling public funds with our core duty to serve a watchdog role of government.

Accepting public funds establishes a slippery slope of ethical decision-making, including: Does it erode public trust and confidence in journalism? Does the appearance of collaboration, rather than independence, serve the public? Does the paper’s existence, at all cost, allow it to produce enterprise journalism that may turn critical of public processes and figures?

A newspaper serves many roles, including educating and informing the public on many basic facets of the community. It must connect readers to the community, and reflect the people it serves. But a newspaper also must probe, provide a voice to all and offer contrarian views to be effective. That often contradicts what government officials want to see in the paper.

Newspapers, to maintain the public trust, must do more than avoid conflicts of interest. We also must avoid the perception of conflicts—a difficult task sometimes even without taxpayer funds aiding a traditionally independent institution.

Newspapers have experienced similar pressures for years, especially from advertisers who believe they should be given preference, so the challenge isn’t new. Still, accepting funds from a government agency makes it all very public, and difficult to defend decisions made even with the best of intentions.