The relatively new Los Angeles Times practice of accepting money from nonprofits to help fund reporting positions has suddenly become controversial. As the Washington Post reports, United Teachers Los Angeles and other groups are unhappy that Times' education coverage is underwritten by leading proponents of charter schools and education reform in Los Angeles. The key plot thickener there is that one of those proponents is Eli Broad's foundation, and that Austin Beutner — who approved this set-up as publisher — is also an education reform advocate as well as a past partner of Broad's in trying to buy the Times.
In any case, the other side of the charter school debate — led by UTLA — got the attention of the Post to write about this as a possible conflict of interest. S. Mitra Kalita, one of the managing editors, speaks for the paper and says there is no influence at all exerted by the funders over coverage. From the story:
The Times has said the foundations will provide $800,000, enough to cover the salaries of two education journalists for at least two years.
Nevertheless, the initiative has raised suspicions, most notably among teachers’ union representatives and others who oppose the reformers’ agenda. Can a news organization, they ask, take money from vested interests and cover the issues fairly?
“It’s dead wrong,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles, the city’s largest teachers’ union. The Times’ readers, he added, “are harmed when they don’t know what they can trust in the biggest paper in Los Angeles.”
Three of the Times’ benefactors — the K&F Baxter Family Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation — have been major supporters of charter and school-privatization efforts that are strongly opposed by teachers’ unions.
More specifically, the Broad Foundation developed the Los Angeles charter proposal, which would cost $490 million to create 260 new charter schools enrolling at least 130,000 students in the sprawling district (charters are publicly funded but independently operated schools that are usually nonunion and exempt from work rules that govern traditional public schools).
The Broad Foundation’s chairman, billionaire businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad, has repeatedly expressed his interest in buying the Times. The newspaper’s owner, Tribune Publishing, has rejected his offers, reportedly including one this month.
The story also goes into when the Times has disclosed the backing and when it hasn't. It also notes that NPR has used his kind of arrangement to fund reporting positions. KPCC has become somewhat reliant on positions funded by outside backers.
* Related update: Even as the LA Times was partnering with the Columbia Graudate SWchool of Journalism on an investigative series about Exxon's research on climate change, the business side of the paper "was presenting a much rosier view of the oil industry through a sponsored-content campaign." Gene Maddaus digs into that, and the backlash from enviro groups, at LA Weekly.