Online publishers can't afford to remain politically neutral

Once you make the transition from newsroom reporting to website publisher, you’ve added a long list of responsibilities to your daily work. There’s the technology of publishing a website and managing a readership database. There’s metrics – tracking who is reading the site, from where and for how long. There’s money, both on the expense side and earning income. You might be selling ads, invoicing advertisers, tracking campaigns, or soliciting grants, completing reports and managing a non-profit board.

With all of those extra responsibilities, do not forget about one other – one that directly conflicts with what you were taught as a reporter, but is nevertheless a responsibility that’s vital if you are to remain in business successfully.

You’ve got to get active, politically.

Decisions made by elected officials determine what information you can access, as well as who can access your publication, and how. They determine how much you pay in taxes, what infrastructure supports your business, as well as the same for your competition.

That’s why the news industry, for generations, has actively lobbied lawmakers to ensure that their decisions either help or at least minimize the harm to its companies.

But as an independent news publisher, you cannot rely on news industry lobbyists and established industry voices to represent your interests. Remember, those newspapers and broadcast and cable stations are your competition now. One characteristic of the environment that they are attempting to have government create (or maintain) is one in which it is difficult, if not impossible, to launch and grow successful competition to their businesses.

Fortunately for your current endeavor – though perhaps not for your former job – the news industry slept through that challenge in the 1990s, allowing the commercialization of the Internet in ways that made such competition inevitable.

But Big Media is fighting back now. Witness the attempt to gut “net neutrality,” the ability of the U.S. federal government to prohibit carriers from given traffic to certain parts of the Internet preference over traffic to other sites and services. A federal appeals court struck down the FCC’s ability to do that this week, potentially eliminating legal restrictions against Internet Service Providers demanding payment from you to allow your current readers future access your website.

As an independent news publisher, it is now very much in your economic interest to get on the phone and call your representatives in Congress, to ask that they make net neutrality a federal law, and to give the FCC the power to regulate ISPs on this issue.

It’s also in your interest as a reporter to get involved in local and state decisions about access to public records. In the Internet era, there’s a huge difference between “public records” that are available 24/7 on a public server in comma-delimited format, and “public records” that are available between 11am-1pm Mondays in a courthouse office, for physical inspection by someone not in possession of any electronic recording device.

Which type of public document would you rather deal with in your reporting? Remember, you can’t always count on your former colleagues in the traditional news industry to represent your interests here. With a newsroom of reporters who know shorthand, but no computer programmers on the newsroom staff, it’s conceivable that a newspaper publisher might not have a problem with the second option described above, and decline to push hard for legal changes to make the first a reality.

As an aspiring leader in your community, you should also take public stands on issues that affect the well-being of your community, whether they be school bond issues, commercial development plans or the police department budget. Whatever a newspaper publisher would have gotten involved with in the past, you, as a news website publisher, should consider taking on now. (See Amy Gahran’s excellent piece for KDMC’s News Leadership Blog, Going on the record: Civic engagement is for journalists, too!.)

Of course, that newspaper publisher assigned different employees to handle all those different tasks, and you might be going it alone now. But that’s no excuse to disengage from the political process that affects your livelihood… as well as that of the entire community you aspire to cover, and by doing so, represent.

So you will have to find a way to disclose what you do – to make clear to your readers what is reporting, what is advocacy and how one affects the other (or not). But don’t ever be afraid of losing credibility by engaging. I suspect that you’re more likely to put your credibility at risk if you fail to stand up for yourself and your readers. No one wants to follow a wimp.

So engage in local politics when you need to. And engage with your readers to let them know why you’re doing that, and how they can do the same to protect their interests.

After all, a community that’s engaged in its political process is one that going to want to read more about that process… building a larger potential audience for journalists’ work.

See, I told you that political engagement would serve your business’ interest!

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. says:

    I disagree with the suggestion that “new media” follow in “old media” footsteps of editorializing on community issues. I personally don’t think old media should have done that either. We do not take editorial positions. We knock ourselves out providing the community with information they need to decide – and THEIR discussion is what matters. We follow that discussion in comments and in our forum and when there is a call for more information, we do our best to find and provide it – although our collaborator/readers do a great job of that too. This is separate from the first part of your story, in which what you discuss is more industry advocacy than political side-taking. That, I believe as a business owner you certainly can get involved with, but that’s not the same thing as writing an editorial that you believe X is the best candidate for the job, even while you’re running a series on all the candidates.

    -Tracy Record, editor/co-publisher, West Seattle Blog (and 30-year old-media journalist)

  2. Bravo, Robert.

    Many, many thanks for broaching an issue that causes an outbreak of hives in too many editors and publishers.

    May I also suggest that independent news entrepreneurs consider partnering with local professional trade groups.

    Advocating for First Amendment protections and Sunshine Laws provide a very natural common cause for print, broadcast and online outlets. Joining watchdog lawsuits is a powerful way to win industry friends and build credibility when you’re dismissed as an Internet interloper.

    The Colorado Press Association and SPJ Colorado Pro Chapter have been invaluable allies in my solo lobbying efforts when more entrenched news industry interests actively worked with state lawmakers to marginalize online competitors.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking piece.

    Wendy Norris

  3. says:

    don’t ever be afraid of losing credibility by engaging

  4. Engagement with your audience is very important. People appreciate an opinion. It just has to be done for right reasons. If your political stance puts off your readers then it’s not going to help you in the long run.