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Towards an Ethics Toolkit for Cultural Journalist-Entrepreneurs

January 4, 2011

grow.jpegAs more arts journalists find themselves leading increasingly peripatetic lifestyles either by choice or necessity, ethical issues that have always existed in the journalism world become increasingly pronounced and thorny.

It's one thing for major media organizations to forbid their employees from going on press junkets, receiving free tickets to arts events and accepting gifts etc. But these rules are quite a bit harder to maintain in an environment where media entities are laying off staffers and increasingly relying on freelancers, while at the same time not remunerating these writers satisfactorily let alone covering their expenses.

The issue is exacerbated even further in the current climate of the "journalist entrepreneur" -- that is, a media person who decides to step out on his or her own and develop a new arts journalism project without the financial backing of any existing organization.

When a journalist starts to be a fundraiser as well as a reporter/commentator, things get tricky. The obvious individuals and organizations from which to solicit funds are those with a vested interest in what you're doing. The perceived (and sometimes real) conflict of interests creates a complex knot that is at times debilitating to the growth of the entrepreneur-journalist's project -- not to mention his or her credibility as a professional member of the media.

So what are the solutions to this problem?

Obtaining funding from "neutral" grant-making bodies is the most obvious way to get "guilt-free" support. But grants are few and far between these days and large numbers of organizations are all fighting over the same small pot of money. Startups tend to fare worse in a poor grant-giing climate than established organizations with a strong track-record.

Transferring out of one journalistic beat into another beat that isn't related to the entrepreneur-journalist's new entrepreneurial project is another potential way of avoiding ethical quandaries. But why would you go and write about sports or agriculture if the basic reason why you're starting the project in the first place is out of a love of cultural journalism? Doesn't make sense.

Simply avoiding covering the work of individuals and organizations that give you money is a third possibility. But many art-makers would much rather maintain the opportunity of getting "free advertising" from a journalist who covers them in an established media outlet than pay to be a sponsor of a new arts media project which is starting out with a negligible audience. So it can be hard to convince like-minded organizations to get behind you. And if you do manage to get funding from some of them, your pool of potential stories diminishes. 

In short, it's a can of worms.

If you have any good ideas for how to forge ahead as an entrepreneur in the field of cultural journalism, I would love to hear them. Please send your thoughts my way by commenting at the bottom of this blog post. I'd like to work towards assembling an "Ethics Toolkit" for the new decade of entrepreneur arts journos and your help in this regard would be much appreciated.

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