A number of Bay Area professional journalists' ears pricked up when Hellman told Forbes that his venture "may be able to get city funding. The mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, and the president of the board of supervisors, David Chiu, are very supportive of what we're doing."
An occasional beer or cordial phone call from a local elected official is one thing -- but taking money from the city government you're then supposed to critically cover is something wholly other. "This creates a potential conflict of interest," notes John McManus, an author and media critic at the San Jose State school of journalism.
Accepting money from the government -- let alone the local government -- is a red-flag issue for for-profit newspapers and other media outlets. During a recent City Hall dust-up over left-leaning supes allegedly funneling funds to their ideological allies to run government notices, Bay Guardian publisher Bruce Brugmann said he didn't want any part of city funds.
"In any event, we don't bid, or go in for these city contracts," he told SF Weekly's Matt Smith, "and we don't intend to do it now."
That being said, the Bay Area News Project is a nonprofit -- and there's plenty of precedent for nonprofits taking government money -- think NPR, for one. "I don't think it's a matter of 'should you take government money when you're in a nonprofit newsroom?'" said Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a Florida nonprofit that trains professional journalists. "It's a matter of 'what structures do you have in place to ensure your journalistic independence no matter who you get money from?'"
Several for-profit newsrooms, in fact, are consulting with McBride now to rewrite their policies and procedures to allow them to accept government grants. "When journalism was profitable, it was unthinkable to seek funding from a source that might have a motive," she says. "Now it's not so unthinkable."
This is disturbing. Period. And, despite McBride's assurances that this is no longer outlandish and McManus' trust that the professionals at KQED would find a way to handle city money properly, it's hard to imagine local coverage not being affected by the largess of local government.
Speaking of influence, while Warren Hellman is a fascinating character, an adept banjo player, and leans left for a super-rich businessman, it'd be naive to think that a man who made his bones on leveraged buyouts and donates large sums to the Committee on Jobs is wholly without major interests in this town. Hellman may have made his contribution with the very best of intentions, but it's a stretch to think future journalists for the Bay Area News Project may not be thinking about killing the goose that laid the golden egg when they cover any sensitive stories. Also, it'd be intriguing to see how the local media would have reacted if it was Hellman's old buddy, Don Fisher, who put up that $5 million.
Of course, influence -- be it from advertisers, Rupert Murdoch, or otherwise -- has always been a factor in journalism. "Money is simply coming from another source now," says McBride.