February 28, 2014

Texas Trib says it will be more transparent; I don't think it's enough

Facing growing criticism over its relationship to larger donors and sponsors, the Texas Tribune has promised new levels of transparency as far as how much particular contributors give, if some donors sponsor special areas of coverage and more.

It's a step ahead, indeed.

But, is it enough to shake the criticism, which I have via Jim Moore, that the Trib is still too "establishmentarian"? I kind of doubt that. Actually, I more than "kind of" doubt that, as I explain in further detail below.

And, I doubt that's going to change, either.

Plus speaking of Moore, he talks about some methodology problems with the Trib's recent polling. This issue has nothing to do with who's donating how much, but rather, with simple editorial quality and quality control issues. He may be overstating things somewhat, but, at the least, it's arguably that some of the numbers are probably more fluid than the Trib would have us believe.

If you're going to do polling, spend the time and money to do it right, or don't do it.

And, per Moore's previous work, I forgot that I had blogged two years ago about the Trib being a softie on environmental reporting AND founder Evan Smith being overpaid.

That said, I don't know if this is in part a pissing match between Smith as a Gen-Xer and Moore as a Baby Boomer or not, as I've heard implied. I don't think it is, and Moore says it's not. That said, I do know that the ethics issue isn't limited to the Trib. It's not even limited to modern digital news groups in general.

Back in the day, a paper as rich as the New York Times occasionally killed stories over advertiser "concerns" back in the 1970s. And, right now, in at least one place in Illinois, a community newspaper, your old-fashioned small-town weekly, is killing anti-fracking ads.

So, what we have is a problem that's existed, but is getting worse as we speak, both in print media and its modern kin, whether digital only or digital-print blend. That said, on the advertorial issue, while it can be easier to "segregate" advertorial from house-written stories and opinion, it can be easier to "integrate," or "semi-integrate," too.

Meanwhile, back to why "transparency" isn't going to be enough from the Trib, Ramshaw's claim aside.

Speaking of advertising, with that lead-in, let's not forget, per this blog post of mine, that the Trib is planning on diving in the advertorial "content" pool this year, if it hasn't already dived:
TribTalk will be the Austin-based news nonprofit’s answer to both the newspaper op-ed section and and the wave of interest in branded advertising — a place for commentary on Texas politics and an opportunity for the Trib to find a new stream of revenue.
Moore confirmed to me that, as far as what he knew, this was still a "go."

And, this gets right back to the "establishmentarian" problems. Especially in an election year, the primary year in the four-year cycle for state of Texas offices.

What this really is, is an invitation for lobbyists, trade groups and PACs to get some PR on the op-ed pages of the Trib, lightly labeled as "sponsored content" to the degree the Trib "segregates" this at all. Can you picture the blizzard of advertorial op-eds when the Lege opens in January of next year?

Basically, Evan Smith is moving the Trib into becoming Tiger Beat on the Colorado, riffing on Charles Pearce calling Politico Tiger Beat on the Potomac. In case you're wondering what I'm referencing, I'm saying, what's stopping Smith from doing something like Mike Allen's Playbook at Politico? Speaking of, maybe Alex Pareene needs to save room for Smith on his "Hack List" for 2015, joining 2014's top-ranked Allen.

Let's take this back to politics.

Campaign finance reporting is transparent. Transparency don't feed the bulldog of how much money influences politics when Greg Abbott's raking in more than $30 million and Wendy Davis isn't that far off, for example, and both will surely bust $100 million by the general. They can file their reports with the Texas Ethics Commission and be as transparent as they're supposed to be. They're still trafficking in a gravy train of political money, and if Evan Smith wanted to do something about that at the Trib, he'd write columns calling for public financing of Texas elections at a maximum, and at a minimum, caps on financial contributions on state races.

But, just maybe Smith doesn't want that.

Hell, maybe Evan will start posting video clips from his PBS "Conversations" on the Trib and make it into a Daily Mail. Or maybe he'll partner with the vast, amoeba-like, hypercapitalist blob known as SXSW and form a rival to TED? (That's in spite of the fact that concentrating on high-end video will not help newspapers.)
Per an old movie, newspapers and their digital-only equivalents need to learn to "dye your underpants and live within your (financial) limitations."

Meanwhile, this has gotten long enough that I may spin the speculative parts off into a second blog post later.

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