The solution to bad speech, as they say, is more speech. So when a big newspaper publishes a long complaint about how a giant company is funding a local news outlet, I have a tough time understanding why that’s inherently bad.
In case you missed it earlier, a Los Angeles Times columnist expressed shock that Chevron is funding a local news website in Richmond, California, a region in which the oil company operates a refinery. The Times columnist calls The Richmond Standard “a Chevron PR website,” though two of the six articles on the front page as of this afternoon covered area homicides (and I doubt Chevron wants to be associated with murder any more closely than it already is).
Whenever the adversarial relationship between journalists and PR practitioners comes up, I almost always defer to the wants and needs of journalists because my agency’s values — a commitment to clarity, consistency, and accuracy — resemble news values more than they resemble marketing tactics.
But this line from the Times column can’t escape interrogation:
“This is what the news business has come to in communities where economics have wiped out traditional local newspapers. Self-interested corporations have stepped into the vacuum.”
I have to disagree. Self-interested corporations are the vacuum — and they have always been the vacuum.
The Los Angeles Times is owned by Tribune Publishing, a publicly traded company with a market cap of more than $500m. The business model of most publishers depends on the willingness of news consumers to pay for news content. So, the fact that a large company outside the publishing space has funded — presumably at a net loss — a news venture is a realistic threat to the business interests of those publishers.
No one knows how to make money off of publishing news anymore.
The uncomfortable fact is that every journalist who doesn’t write for one of the handful of nonprofit news sources is writing for a self-interested corporation. They simply have more than one advertiser sponsoring their work. From the looks of it, the wall between editorial and advertising at the Richmond Standard resembles the wall between editorial and advertising at many conventional news outlets.
The Times critique is just the most recent demonstration of why it is simultaneously the worst time to work in the news business and the best time to know what real news is. When you separate reality from romanticism and view news media as a collection of assets, then it should become obvious that people are going to treat them like any other asset and maximize their value in whatever manner benefits them the most.
The point? As long as Richmond Standard doesn’t publish falsehoods, someone needs to help me understand how its mere existence is any worse than that of the many “news” sites that rely on clickbait to monetize their content.