Under pressure

Last week saw an important test for the long-term mission of Midwest Energy News.

As you know, we published our first original story, one dealing with the somewhat touchy subject of wind farm siting. It’s been well received and was even picked up by Grist, a national environmental news site.

But not everyone was entirely happy with the finished product.

It wasn’t long after the story was published that someone in the renewable energy community wanted me to make a fairly minor tweak that they felt would be more constructive to their own messaging. I won’t say who it was, or what they wanted to change, because that’s not the point. What matters is how it was handled.

People who work in the news business are used to this sort of pressure, and as a rule, the answer is always no. Even if you lose an advertiser over it, a news organization’s credibility is its stock in trade. The same is true for Midwest Energy News – even though we’re funded by and work within an advocacy organization, our mission is to do journalism, not PR.

In this case, my boss (Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy) alerted me to the request without comment or suggestion. I said there was absolutely no way I was going to change the story without evidence of a factual error. Noble backed me up, the story remains unaltered, and that’s the end of it.

It’s a fairly unremarkable event, and it probably comes across as self-serving to write about it (maybe it is). But I’m a big believer in transparency, and think that, given the unique circumstances under which we’re conducting journalism, it’s important to assure readers that as an editor, I have the same independence and autonomy that I did when I was working in the “real” news business. Maybe more.

That’s not to say I’m a Pollyanna about the conflict of interest inherent in doing journalism for an advocacy group. It just so happens that this is an organization where truth-telling is a fundamental value, and a well-reported news story shouldn’t pose much of a threat to the core mission.

We’re still taking the first steps in what is a rather unique experiment, both in the advocacy and journalism worlds. As we progress, I welcome your feedback on how things are going.

2 thoughts on “Under pressure

  1. No offence intended, Ken, but it had never occured to me that a energy blog funded by an advocacy organization was “journalism.”

    I’ve been a journalist myself, but I don’t consider myself one now, even when blogging or submiting contect for bona fide news outlets like WCCO’s The Wire or the KSTP Community News site.

    But we all have different opinions on where the line is drawn between journalism and advocacy. Me? I’m an advocate, and proud of it. Perhaps your job description was written differently than min. If so, you are a rare bird indeed. Keep on flying high (and look out for those turbine blades).

  2. Oh, I wouldn’t count this blog as “journalism,” per se. The stuff I write here shouldn’t be confused with what actual reporters do.

    But our news stories – which *are* written by actual reporters – are intended to meet high journalistic standards. My writers are required by contract to adhere to the SPJ code of ethics, and I have complete autonomy from the rest of the organization in deciding what appears on the site.

    Admittedly, the idea that someone who draws a paycheck from an advocacy organization could do truly independent journalism is a tough pill to swallow. But that’s what I’ve been tasked to do – the thinking is that the advocacy efforts become easier if decision makers are informed on the issues. And the only way those decision makers will read our reporting is if it’s fair, accurate and free from interference.

    It’s not that I’m above doing PR or advocacy work – far from it. But I would never put the label “news” on it and try to pass if off as something it isn’t.

    But I also don’t expect anyone to take my word for it. The proof will be in what we publish.