Never accuse the Associated Press of being hide bound by journalistic tradition. In a sharp break with past practice, the once-venerable news service is providing its 1,500 member papers with ready-to-run stories produced by "independent" reporters and editors.
This summer, the 163-year-old news cooperative announced it would distribute "watchdog and investigative journalism" penned not by its own staff or that of member papers, but by four outside groups: the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, California; New York-based ProPublica; and two D.C. outfits, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.
AP, itself a not-for-profit enterprise, identified the four organizations as "civic-minded" nonprofits. They also all have decidedly liberal sponsors. A cursory glance at the "independent" news shops reveals their reliance on left-tilting patrons such as the Knight Foundation and leftist donors such as financier Herbert Sandler and currency speculator George Soros.
Sandler and his wife, Marion, founders of ProPublica, are generous givers to Democratic candidates and left-wing causes including the Center for American Progress and ACORN, the ethically challenged radical action group. Soros, an early backer of CAP as well as the radical MoveOn.org, poured tens of millions into attacks on President George W. Bush.
AP calls the exercise an experiment. The readers and editors of the wire's member papers must be cautious consumers.
Readers will need to pay closer attention to bylines and other identifications to see who is behind a particular article. Is the reporter employed by the newspaper or AP? Or is it someone working for a third party with a political agenda?
Hometown editors will need to work a little harder, too. AP has a reputation for delivering clean copy, if sometimes incomplete stories. But now, serious editors are obligated to scrutinize AP copy for bias as closely as the work of their own staff.
Besides exercising due diligence, local editors will need to level with readers. That will mean clearly identifying "outsourced" pieces as coming from ProPublica or CIR, via AP, rather than merely slapping the wire service's tag on an activist shop's work. [Editor's note: Paul Colford, AP's director of media relations, assures OCPA that "the stories from the nonprofit groups, clearly labeled with their names, are distributed via a local content-sharing platform ...The stories do not move on the AP wires."]
AP's rationale for embracing nonprofit journalism is that struggling newspapers, large and small, are shedding staff. Shrunken newsrooms no longer have the manpower or expertise to root out corruption by digging into government contracts, travel records, or zoning changes.
Nonprofit journalism certainly can serve the public interest. But "outsourcing" the shoe leather means fewer investigative or enterprise stories will be written by reporters accountable to employers with a stake in the community. Increasingly, readers will be asked to trust the integrity of journalists paid by "independent" groups whose donors and goals aren't so clear.
Readers seeking fairness, balance, and truth can hope AP might consider distributing work by independent journalists toiling for nonprofits backed by conservative donors.
For now, AP's dalliance with left-wing journalism risks an under-the-radar switch on newspaper readers, who don't tend to notice byline names nearly as much as reporters would like.
The move holds risk for AP, as well. The wire bills itself as "the largest and most trusted source of independent news and information." That credibility is now on the line.
Ken McIntyre, a newspaperman for more than 25 years, is the Marilyn and Fred Guardabassi Fellow in Media and Public Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.