The Washington News Council met the Gates Foundation’s Challenge Grant target by raising $100,000 in total donations by the deadline of Jan. 15, 2011. We received the Foundation’s matching check for $100,000 in the mail this week. We are extremely grateful to the Foundation for its continued generous support of the WNC and our important work.
This news is especially welcome because we recently learned that the Minnesota News Council, which was the model for the Washington News Council when we were founded in 1998, is closing its doors after 40 years. The MNC’s president, Tony Carideo, told the National Newspaper Association’s paper (January 2011 issue) that an inability to secure adequate funding and a decline in the number of complaints were primary factors. The council’s former executive director, Sarah Bauer, told me that she would move into the offices of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, which founded the MNC, as its program director.
Over the past 40 years, much of the MNC’s support came from that state’s newspapers and other media outlets, including local television stations. However, their funding declined severely in recent years due to the financial problems of the news industry in Minnesota.
In contrast, the Washington News Council was not founded by or significantly funded by news organizations when we began. We invited news outlets to join us and help shape our council, but nearly all declined. Instead, we sought and received funding and support from foundations, corporations, associations and many individuals — and thus did not rely on media donors (which some might consider a conflict of interest in any case).
Still, the WNC did copy the MNC’s by-laws, guidelines and procedures when we formed. We flew their then-director, Gary Gilson, to Seattle in September 1998 for our kick-off breakfast at the Washington Athletic Club. Gilson and I personally visited newspaper publishers and editors in Seattle, Tacoma, Longview, Vancouver and Spokane to tell them about the WNC and encourage them to participate. We pointed out that public accountability through an independent outside citizens’ organization such as ours could help increase their levels of credibility and trust. Most did not see that then, but many have since come to agree. Even some major media leaders who initially opposed the News Council have since written us checks, co-sponsored our events and supported our scholarship program. We thank them!
We are sorry to see the MNC go, but are glad to report that the WNC is now stronger than ever. We have just matched (for the second year) a $100,000 Gates Foundation challenge grant to sustain and expand our activities in 2011 and beyond. We have diversified our funding sources and redesigned our website. Our online community is growing steadily. Our TAO of Journalism pledge and seal is gaining adherents nationally and globally. Our new OMG (Online Media Guide) for Washington state is in the advanced beta stage. We are active participants in the Journalism That Matters organization, and I am part of JTM’s guiding “Collaboratory” group. We have now awarded 22 scholarships to students statewide. We recently held our 12th annual Gridiron West Dinner, an entertaining and successful “toast/roast” of five former Mayors of Seattle, and are planning our next event.
When I ask people if a news council is still needed, with all the new and easy ways of responding to the news media on the Internet, through comments, blogs, hyperlocal websites, Facebook, Twitter and other means, they tell me: “You’re needed now more than ever.” Why? Because if someone or their organization is damaged by inaccurate, unfair or unethical news reports, online digital response mechanisms may not be enough. The News Council is still here to help review complaints and provide recourse to those who are damaged by media malpractice. Our phone continues to ring with calls from potential complainants. In some cases, we counsel them on how to obtain corrections, clarifications and/or apologies. In some cases, we mediate compromises with the media outlet. In other cases, we may hold a formal public hearing. Increasingly, we are taking our complaint process online — such as in the “virtual hearing” we held on a complaint from Secretary of State Sam Reed against KIRO7 Television. (Citizens upheld the complaint by overwhelming margins in a series of online votes.) Our website features a “Washington NewsTrust” section where the public can nominate and rate news stories, and we’re working with Scott Rosenberg of MediaBugs to make his innovative bug tracking system applicable to Washington state news media and give citizens another new feedback tool.
Moreover, while the MNC’s demise means we are one of the only remaining news councils in the United States (New England and Hawaii have smaller but similar groups), respected and robust press councils exist in many nations around the world and their number is growing. Last year we joined the Association of Independent Press Councils of Europe (AIPCE), which has several members (like us) outside of Europe. (See their website for a full list.)
The Minnesota News Council inspired us to form and their closure is a loss for Minnesota citizens and journalists. But we’re alive and well, and committed to our mission of promoting excellence and ethics in journalism. As an article in the same January issue of the NNA’s paper put it: “Washington News Council reinvents itself on the Internet.” They got that right, and we will continue to reset, reboot, recreate and reinvigorate ourselves. If you believe that high-quality, accurate, ethical news media are vital to democracy, join us!