Critical Thinking

By: Nu Yang

Critical Thinking

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.

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Published: May 12, 2014

7 thoughts on “Critical Thinking

  • May 12, 2014 at 6:43 pm

    NO, no media should accept finances from a government they are covering or any government.

  • May 12, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    No, put down the iPhone and go out and sell some ads.

  • May 12, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    This is a question that we shouldn’t even have to ask. Absolutely not! Talk about a conflict of interest and the end of the news media’s watchdog function. And what about the press’s responsibility to its readers? Taking money from any government entity is not only a slippery slope, it is a bottomless chasm that will destroy a free media.

  • May 12, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    In Dixon California the City Council has for several years been punishing Dixon’s Independent Voice for being critical of the Council and City actions. The IV is a newspaper of General Circulation, and is now it its 22nd year of publication. There is an older newspaper owned by an out-of-town publishing group – which NEVER challenges nor criticizes the council or city. State law requires when there are two or more newspapers of General Circulation that the city go out to bid. Each of the last five years the IV has submitted bids SUBSTANTIALLY lower – by 1/3 – than the competitor. AND the competitor has admitted in their bids and publicly that they only deliver to about 700 Dixon addresses. The IV has proven we deliver to over 4,200 Dixon addresses. Despite that, the council has refused to give the IV the contract – instead splitting the ads and paying both papers the higher bid’s rate. Councilmembers – including the Mayor – have stated at council meetings – on video – that they won’t give the IV the contract because of the reporting and editorial content of the paper. Just as bad, the politicians and their allies have for all our 20 years actively sought to dissuade advertisers from using the IV – threatening them with boycotts. And that has worked to some extent. The IV refuses to back down on our oversight of local government. And the Competition continues to NOT challenge the powers that be.

  • May 12, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    If the local government wanted to polish its image, that $30,00 should go into a year long ad campaign explaining the value of the services they provide.

  • May 13, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    With the industry as weak as it is this is a question I have often pondered about. Every fiber of me says the answer should be no. Accepting the money makes it either impossible to be independent or makes every decision made suspect. Still that question is no different than the one newspapers have faced since their first editions. How would you treat a critical story about your largest advertiser? In this particular case it seems to be a choice between being beholden to the city or no paper at all. I don’t find either of those choices palatable.

  • June 2, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    My goodness was it refreshing to read these articles and comments. My husband and I have owned, sold and started smalltown newspapers for nearly 30 yrs and are now just settled in the small town where we started with just one paper. Who can afford to hire help? Just the two of us were publishing three papers a week BEFORE computers. Best time ever. I loved working and it is a lot of work. Accepting govt money is how this country got to where it is today. Schools, local govt taking fed money, states taking fed money. Now they have their claws into everything we do. I won’t take any govt handouts. And as far as HC goes – I will not comply. I don’t want their handouts and I will not be FORCED to take their handouts. I can’t stand it as it is when I do up the city and school monthly legals. They go through thousands and thousands of dollars EVERY month. And what do I get? A tax bill. So I guess they will have to do what they have to do but that’s what I believe and I will not back down. Thank you all for the lifting my spirits today!!



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