“The trouble with tainted money is t’aint enough of it.”
The coinage is attributed to William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, when he was asked about the morality of drawing support for his charitable institution from money bags that, in some cases, might be trying to atone for, or distract from, the distasteful ways in which they acquired all that wealth in the first place.
As The Salt Lake Tribune goes forward into the brave new world of being a — deliberately — nonprofit institution, those charting that course are designing what has been helpfully described as “a very clear firewall” between the board that will run the nonprofit structure and the journalists who struggle to put out the paper and feed the website from day to day and hour to hour.
To maintain the public trust that all journalistic endeavors must have, maximum effort must be devoted to making sure that those who donate to the cause do so because they are supportive of it — a robust, local news machine that puts the interests of the community first — not because they think they can influence its content.
The reason I’m not too worried about that — other than the fact that I don’t have a better idea — is that it really isn’t that much different from the issue newspapers have always had. Instead of donors we will have to ignore, no matter how generous they’ve been, it used to be advertisers.
Neither single-copy sales nor year-long subscriptions were ever more than a small fraction of what it cost to run a newspaper. When the ads went away, thanks to things like Craigslist and other forms of online advertising, newspapers started going down the drain.
I have, over the years, watched as one newspaper weathered an advertising boycott by local auto dealers when the paper editorially supported a local option sales tax the dealers didn’t like.
I was threatened by the blustering owner of a discount grocery chain (not in Utah) who was going to cancel his considerable ad buy because he thought we paid too much attention to the innovations — branch banks, dry cleaners, hot Chinese food — launched by his upscale competition. (“But we’re cheaper!” he bellowed, as his PR guy sat in embarrassed silence.)
And I gave a sigh of relief when the aforesaid high-end grocery chain declined to cancel its advertising in my newspaper at the demand of a small organization of folks who were deeply offended by our pro-gay-rights editorial stance. The company, its bosses made clear, never thought of themselves as supporting or not supporting a newspaper’s reporting or its editorial positions. It just wanted its potential customers to know when tuna and peanut butter were on sale.
Advertisers were never out to support the newspaper. They were out to reach their customers. When they thought newspapers were the way to do that, they paid up. When it wasn’t, they weren’t. The nonprofit model, we reasonably hope, won’t abandon us for the next shiny object.
The reasons for us in the journalism dodge to keep going, of course, include our role in telling you where other folks, most specifically people who are or who want to be our elected leaders, get their money.
And it is not just money. As our president, one of our congressmen and one of our former congressmen fail to see, research on political opponents is a form of currency. If the campaign buys it from a researcher, particularly if it is all listed on campaign finance reports, it’s like the grocer’s newspaper ad, payment for something of value, with nothing more owed or expected.
If the dirt is not purchased, but given, especially if it’s under the table, it’s basically a retainer laid down in anticipation of services to be rendered in the future. And that is just as much an assault on our democracy as Mitt Romney says it is.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, hopes you find this unbiased explanation of good and bad worthy of your continued support.