Does the application for press credentials to the Kansas Senate contain questions designed to limit or restrict the types of organizations that apply?
A bit of background: In a New York Times op-ed from a year ago (News You Can Endow), the authors tell of the financial troubles of newspapers: “Today, we are dangerously close to having a government without newspapers. American newspapers shoulder the burden of considerable indebtedness with little cash on hand, as their profit margins have diminished or disappeared.” The reaction of newspapers: “News organizations have cut costs, with grave consequences.”
It’s an important issue. As the article states: “If [Thomas] Jefferson was right that a well-informed citizenry is the foundation of our democracy, then newspapers must be saved.” I would argue that it doesn’t matter much if newspapers survive in their present form of physical delivery — as the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund has said, on dead trees.
But newspaper-style journalism must survive. Former editor of the Wichita Eagle W. Davis “Buzz” Merritt wrote a book that chronicles some of the changes in newspapers over the past decades (Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy At Risk). My review of the book contains Merritt’s summary of the properties of newspaper-style journalism that separates it from other forms: “… newspaper journalism is ‘not shaped by a limiting technology,’ such as a television broadcast; it values completeness over immediacy, it is lengthier and deeper than other sources of journalism, its goal is relevance rather than entertainment, and opinion and analysis is presented separately from news.”
Returning to Kansas: Newspapers in Kansas have suffered financially. The Wichita Eagle and Kansas City Star have reduced their staff. Morris Publishing, owner of the Topeka Capital-Journal, recently filed for bankruptcy.
Now some organizations have been created and are stepping up to fill the void. These organizations are of the type that the Times op-ed recommends as a way to save newspapers: non-profit organizations.
Specifically, Kansas Watchdog and Kansas Reporter, both started last year, provide coverage of Kansas issues. Both are staffed by experienced journalists, some with reporting backgrounds in Kansas newspapers. Similar efforts are springing up in many states.
They’re both non-profit organizations, and that has created a problem.
Here’s a question on the application for Kansas Senate press credentials: “Please list below the organization’s shareholders, owners or major contributors: (Shareholders, owners or major contributors of 5% or over)”
The problem is that many people who donate to non-profit organizations prefer to remain anonymous. Donors may prefer anonymity for any number of reasons.
Regarding donor-funded journalism, some argue that anonymous donors will require that the news be produced in a way that advances a political agenda. That’s possible, and equally so for news outlets on both the political left and right. It can happen whether donors are anonymous or known. It happens in traditional media, no matter what the structure of ownership.
These issues — primarily how newspaper-style and investigative journalism will survive — are vitally important. It’s likely that the answers will be known only after a period of experimentation where answers are hammered out in public.
But Stephen Morris, who is president of the Kansas Senate, seems determined not to let this happen.
You can read all the questions the Kansas Senate President’s Office asks by clicking on 2010 Kansas Senate Press Credentialing Application.