Earlier this month, The Oregonian announced an online partnership with nine organizations to provide news, blogs and features through the newspaper’s website.
The new Oregonian News Network, the paper said, features links to news sites that offer “quality local independent reporting.” These include MyEugene.org, the city’s “first community-driven news site”; the website for The Skanner, one of Oregon’s oldest African-American-owned newspapers; and the Lund Report, a well-respected healthcare news site.
But some critics say one partner, Oregon Capitol News, raises questions about the newspaper’s promise that its partners are truly independent.
Oregon Capitol News is paid for and run by the Cascade Policy Institute, a Libertarian think tank. Founded in 1991, Cascade espouses low taxes and small government, and “promotes property rights, incentives, markets and decentralized decision-making,” its website says.
Oregon Capitol News, which has a staff of three, publishes news stories from Salem that look at a wide range of political issues, including some that Cascade Policy Institute lobbies on. The website also has a number of useful databases, including some that list the salaries and benefits of public officials.
Scott Moore, of the union-backed advocacy group Our Oregon, first pointed to a disconnect between the guidelines The Oregonian established for its news partners and the choice of Oregon Capitol News.
“The Oregonian appears to be breaking its own rules,” Moore wrote on Our Oregon’s blog May 9. “The guidelines for prospective members of the Oregonian News Network explicitly say ‘organs for institutions such as government agencies, political parties, non-profits’ don’t qualify.’”
Cascade President John Charles told WW his organization’s donors asked his group to establish Oregon Capitol News in response to the dwindling number of news reporters in the state.
At the same time, Charles maintains that the Oregon Capitol News blog is independent. “We don’t exercise day-to-day oversight,” Charles says. “I suggest stories to them occasionally, but I am more likely to be quoted in Willamette Week than in Oregon Capitol News.” Cascade says it’s committed to transparency in government, though Charles would not identify who is underwriting Oregon Capitol News.
Chuck Sheketoff, director of the left-leaning Oregon Center for Public Policy, says The Oregonian is lending its credibility to an organization with a clear political agenda. “Oregon Capitol News is merely ‘a project of’ and not independent of Cascade Policy Institute, and Cascade takes advocacy positions on the issues that Oregon Capitol News writes about,” Sheketoff says.
Oregonian Editor Peter Bhatia disagrees. “I respect Chuck, but he couldn’t be more wrong about OCN, based on what I’m reading,” Bhatia wrote WW in an email response to questions. “Their stories are straightforward, simple news reporting and reflect no bias that I can detect. He’s looking for a problem that doesn’t exist.”
During the 2010 election, however, Oregon Capitol News published campaign interviews with legislative candidates from only one party—the GOP. A May 5 story on increased greenhouse gas regulation didn’t mention that a Cascade executive had testified against the bill. A May 18 story on a bill to make tax credits more transparent didn’t note Cascade’s testimony in favor of it.
Bhatia says The Oregonian’s views about its partners could change. “We’ll watch OCN as we do all the original partners,” Bhatia says. “Our purpose is to help these sites gain audience and to broaden the range of news available on OregonLive.com.”
Tom Goldstein, a UC Berkeley journalism professor, says it’s too soon to judge The Oregonian’s experiment. He said the situation is analogous to the broadcast network Al Jazeera (owned by the state of Qatar) or The Washington Times (owned for many years by the Unification Church).
“If over a period of time Oregon Capitol News or Al Jazeera or The Washington Times carries credible news reports, then the issue of ownership fades into the background,” Goldstein says. “Al Jazeera seems to pass the credibility test much of the time, The Washington Times passes sometimes.”
Sheketoff says it would be just as misleading if the daily presented his group’s work as unbiased.
“I’d welcome The Oregonian publishing all of our news releases and reports,” he says. “But I’d never ask the editor of the paper to claim [our site] is ‘independent journalism.’”