Writers and business interests: How far should transparency go?

Meet MinnPost’s new ombudsman.

That would be me, at least for today.

Since I’m the site’s designated media scold, a couple of fellow professionals wrote me to complain about CEO/Editor Joel Kramer’s Monday announcement that MinnPost would be adding “several new journalists and features.”

Among the roster: Blois Olson, a local public-relations executive who will write about politics, and John Reinan, a reporter-turned-marketing pro who will write about his industry.

“Waiting for the media critic to fret over hiring of PR people to cover the news … at his own shop this time,” wrote one correspondent waggishly.

It’s a tweak well taken. Three months ago, I complained that the Star Tribune “crossed the ad-edit barrier” when it hired John Rash, an ad agency VP, for a part-time editorial board position. Given Rash’s two masters, potential conflicts of interest abound; I argued readers should know them up front. My advice then: “Publish a list of Rash’s past and present clients and negotiating partners, in the interest of transparency.”

The Strib wouldn’t do that — and MinnPost won’t either. Echoing Strib editorial page editor Scott Gillespie, MinnPost co-managing editor Roger Buoen says that Olson and Reinan “will avoid writing about clients or issues their firms have an interest in. If an extraordinary case arises and both the writer and editor agree that John or Blois should write about a client or related issue, we will disclose that information in the post.”

Readers won’t get raw data

That’s less-than-full transparency: Readers won’t get raw data to make their own judgment. You’ll have to trust that writers will recognize and disclose conflicts and editors will manage them appropriately behind the scenes.

Buoen says that’s standard industry practice, and the norm for MinnPost’s largely freelance pool: No one preemptively lists their non-site clients. “We trust the writers to tell us if they have a conflict — just as we trust all of our writers to disclose conflicts,” he notes.

To me, there’s a material difference between a freelance journalist like, say, Britt Robson (a new music contributor) and contributors who earn their living promoting commercial causes.

Olson, who works for Tunheim Partners, says disgorging a full client roster would be bad for business; some don’t want the firm’s role acknowledged publicly. “Many times, we get hired because I am providing background counsel … private entities, private advice,” he says.

Reinan, a former Star Tribune reporter who now works for Fast Horse Inc., says MinnPost can link to his firm’s client roster (which presumably is complete). Right now, the bio accompanying Reinan’s writing doesn’t, and it should.

Holes remain: We don’t know the clients Olson or Reinan might be wooing — a significant business secret in itself. Again, both men insist they will avoid any potential conflicts and otherwise publicly disclose them. Each piece will run next to an author bio that lists employment and selected other information.

Media perch like Mackay’s

Reinan likens his role to the sort of “regular media perch” occupied by businessfolk like Harvey Mackay, who writes a regular Strib business column that no one mistakes for a journalist’s story. (Reinan wrote a Strib marketing column while on staff after leaving the paper’s employ.)

That’s a fair analogy, but one MinnPost’s structure complicates.

Buoen says Olson and Reinan will only write “posts,” not stories. Posts are those items down the right side of our home page, graced by line-drawn portraits. Stories are in the middle of the page.

Buoen likens posts to columns, “designed to allow the writer to offer more of his or her voice and views — an appropriate place for experts to discuss issues in their fields.” Stories have less voice and multiple perspectives.

I see two problems here.

First, many (most?) readers remain confused about what a post is, making it harder to distinguish from stories. It’s an unfamiliar term compared to “blog” or “column.”

Second — and more important — MinnPost lumps all its “posters” together. We don’t distinguish between independent journalists and conflict-tiptoeing “experts.” It’s a little like the Strib treating Harvey Mackay and staff columnist Neal St. Anthony as equals.

Kramer’s note compounded the confusion. He led by touting the arrival of “several new journalists.” However, the first two names he mentioned don’t qualify: U political science Prof. Kathryn Pearson and Olson. (Pearson, though, lacks a commercial agenda.) I can understand why another emailer thought we’d broadened the definition of “journalist” excessively.

Should MinnPost include regular voices beyond journalistic fatheads like me? Yes.

My own disclosure: When I heard Olson was interested in MinnPost, I said “hire him.” Over the years, he’s built credibility as a political analyst for KSTP-TV, KTCA’s “Almanac” and WCCO Radio. He’s churned out quality insights for political publications, too, and MinnPost gives him a new opportunity for that. He’s up front about his DFL roots (again, something his MinnPost bio should disclose), though he doesn’t donate to, or work for, parties, candidates or campaigns.

Still, Tunheim is part public-affairs consulting firm, and there are issue conflicts. For example, Olson advised Hennepin County on ballpark issues, and Tunheim produces the Vikings community report. He counsels a utility on energy issues. If the ballpark becomes an election issue, he’ll either avoid or it disclose, and you’ll have to trust he won’t exact retribution on any candidate voting against the utility’s interests.

He’ll complicate things for some MinnPost reporters, too. I’ve given a lot of attention to the media coverage of TIZA Academy, an Arabic charter school accused of impermissably teaching Islam. Olson has been the school’s spokesperson, and I’ve found him a stand-up source. He says he’ll no longer speak for clients when MinnPost calls; another member of his team will. I’ll feel compelled to reference the connection anyway.

I didn’t know Reinan’s hiring was in the cards, but since he’s writing about his industry, things will be more straightforward. With experience in the journalism and marketing worlds, he beefs up our roster of business experts such as the Minnov8 crew.

The best journalism is transparent, independent and thoroughly labeled. We’ll proceed with the best of intentions and integrity. Still, the most honest thing to say is keep your vigilance up, readers.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Aaron Landry on 07/31/2008 - 07:33 am.

    You should always be MinnPost’s ombudsman.

  2. Submitted by Karl Pearson-Cater on 07/31/2008 - 09:30 am.

    @AaronLandry: Done. Just sent out Brauer’s new nameplate for his virtual office door.

  3. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 07/31/2008 - 09:56 am.

    Ombudsperson? I didn’t know MinnPost had an attic.

  4. Submitted by B Maginnis on 08/05/2008 - 04:43 pm.

    Noted Strib “journalist” CJ just last week was hyping Fox 9 programming, and she appears on their air.

    Just sayin’…

Leave a Reply