Insistent sponsors put newsrooms on alert

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Morgan Holm

Sponsors of topical news coverage “are looking for the shortest path between our audience and their interests,” said Holm.

Underwriters of public radio programs increasingly want to link their names more closely to particular stories and reporting projects, according to station executives, a trend that is requiring journalists to be more vigilant in fighting perceptions of potential conflicts of interest.

Several factors are fueling the trend. The weak economy has left underwriters with tighter budgets, prompting them to seek more bang for their buck as they allocate their dollars. At the same time, public radio’s gains in audience and stature have given underwriters access to more listeners and website visitors, and they want to maximize their marketing exposure.

Years ago, sponsors saw public radio as an alternative to commercial media and their underwriting of it as philanthropy, said Sam Fleming, managing director of news and programming at Boston’s WBUR. Now, “they’re less willing to give money to public radio for a good cause,” he says. “They want to be very specific about what they want to be associated with, and public radio is a regular part of their marketing budget.”

WBUR recently dealt with a hospital that wanted to buy underwriting and asked for a direct role in the editorial process in exchange, Fleming said. “It was alarming because we had never heard anything like this before,” he said. Such practices do occur in commercial media and create an expectation among underwriters that public stations could be amenable to similar arrangements, he said.

The new mindset among underwriters “does make it much harder, when you’re trying to fund journalism, to meet the donor’s needs without crossing the firewall” between the newsroom and the development department, said Robin Turnau, president of Vermont Public Radio. To strengthen its safeguards, VPR established a journalism fund that allows individual donors to support various projects without granting them direct links to any one initiative.

A potentially dicier arrangement can be seen in the Pacific Northwest, where EarthFix, one of the CPB-backed Local Journalism Centers, receives underwriting support from several sponsors who are active with the environmental issues it covers. The LJC’s underwriters include Ameresco Quantum, a provider of energy-efficiency services, as well as a law firm and a public-relations company that both focus on energy-related issues.

“As we get into doing these more topical types of coverage, the reality is that the people who want to underwrite those have an interest in that topic,” said Morgan Holm, v.p. for news and public affairs at EarthFix partner Oregon Public Broadcasting. “They anticipate that the audience for that web page is going to be interested in environmental issues. They’re looking for the shortest path between our audience and their interests.”

Embedded underwriting: too cozy?

Underwriters’ desire for tighter ties with public radio programming is also evident in national programming, and has caused tension between NPR and stations. Listeners have also weighed in with their concerns.

“Many of us in public radio are challenged to sustain and grow sponsorship,” said Dana Davis Rehm, senior v.p. for marketing, communications and external relations at NPR. “In the midst of continued economic pressures, we are also finding that sponsor expectations are increasing.”

Station leaders questioned NPR’s decision last year to sell more “embedded underwriting” — underwriting credits that air directly adjacent to stories within newsmagazines rather than at the end of program segments, where most credits air.

The network had been selling embedded underwriting for some time. StoryCorps segments, business stories on Morning Edition and NPR’s “All Tech Considered” and “Your Health” features all carry adjacent sponsorship messages. Special reports such as “Radio Expeditions,” the Kitchen Sisters’ Hidden Kitchens series and “This I Believe” have as well.

Sponsorship credits for Ally Bank, an exclusive underwriter of NPR’s “Planet Money,” have run adjacent to the financial reporting segments since 2009.  The deal prompted enough criticism from listeners when it was announced that then–NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard (now a freelance contributor to Current) devoted a December 2009 column to the issue. Ethics expert Bob Steele, then with the Poynter Institute, told Shepard that Ally Bank’s support “raises the question of whether this particular bank is getting a special deal for whatever reason.”

“… NPR has a large pool of credibility with most of its audience,” Shepard wrote. “But that pool is not infinite, and it can be diminished when listeners perceive a conflict of interest, even if one does not exist.”

When NPR announced its plan to sell more embedded underwriting in December 2011, it prompted objections from stations and members of the Public Radio Program Directors Association board, according to Arthur Cohen, PRPD president. Board members worried that the spots would threaten public radio’s noncommercial sound and give listeners the impression that sponsors were influencing content.

“There was no actual influence going on, but there was a concern about perception of influence,” Cohen told Current.

Station reps also complained about a shift in the balance between underwriting inventory allotted for use by NPR and by stations, particularly since stations already pay NPR for the newsmagazines.

NPR executives joined PRPD board members at a retreat in January to discuss the matter and had a “pretty frank” hour-and-a-half discussion, Cohen said. After the meeting, NPR reported back to PRPD and stations that it would not pursue its plan for additional embedded underwriting “until we all were able to make the time to sit down and talk through the many pressure points affecting sponsorship,” Rehm told Current.

Some station-based journalists have expressed concerns about the precedent that the national embedded-underwriting arrangements have set for local underwriters. “Once the camel gets its nose into the tent, it doesn’t matter anymore,” even if NPR stops selling embedded underwriting, said John Dankosky, news director at WNPR in Connecticut, at a session at the Public Radio News Directors Inc. conference in Houston in June, where underwriting and ethics were discussed at length.

Strong communication needed

As pressures from underwriters increase, station-based journalists say news directors are in a position to prevent undue influence.

To avoid perceptions of conflicts of interest, news directors should be sure to seek multiple sources of funding for any project, station journalists say. “If you end up covering an underwriter and there’s some antagonism and they decide to withdraw and that’s a death blow,” then the project was too dependent on that funder, said OPB’s Holm.

The journalism fund at Vermont Public Radio is one approach for limiting perceived conflicts in sponsorships of news programs. Established in 2010, the VPR Journalism Fund puts distance between individual donors and the reporting they support. VPR’s fundraisers cite past projects when raising money for the fund, but make no promises about future reporting that may come from it.

To get support from the fund, reporters within VPR and independent producers who work with the newsroom submit proposals to an in-house committee. The committee’s members include Turnau, at least three staffers appointed by her and the network’s v.p. of news and programming.

So far the fund has raised $335,000 from individual donors. It has supported in-depth reporting on young Vermonters leaving the state for other opportunities, the impact of Hurricane Irene on Vermont and the 2010 census. It also sent a reporter to Afghanistan, the site of the largest deployment of the Vermont National Guard to date. VPR used the fund to support development of smartphone apps for the iPhone and Android mobile platforms.

Strong relationships between news and development staffers are also important. At WBUR, the head of development regularly consults Fleming about any sponsorship deals that might raise eyebrows, Fleming said.

“Because of the economy we’re in, everyone is trying to make ends meet and continue to grow,” he said. “These issues are going to rub up against each other, and the editorial side needs to have very good communication with the revenue side in any given organization to make sure everyone is comfortable.”

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