From Kaplan to Buffett, Post gets it right on transparency

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By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, August 22, 2010

Early this month, when stories started appearing about a government investigation that found fraud at 15 for-profit colleges, reader Bob Visco searched The Post's Web site. When he found nothing, he fired off a testy e-mail.

The Post "would seem to have a duty to be on top of this story," he wrote, since one of the schools named was Kaplan University, owned by The Washington Post Co.

Visco, a marketing consultant from the Richmond area who counts a Kaplan competitor among his clients, was in error. The Post was competitive and has consistently disclosed the Kaplan connection.

But his hair-trigger reaction was understandable -- and common -- in this era of doubt about the integrity of established media. I regularly hear from readers deeply suspicious that The Post has concealed a self-interest. If a story touches on the cable industry but fails to note that The Post's parent company has a cable division, they write. If a column mentions network TV affiliates but doesn't say that The Post Co. owns a handful of stations, they call.

The Post has newsroom policies to avoid conflicts that could damage reader trust. For example, staffers who write about business and finance must periodically disclose their holdings and investments so ranking editors can avert conflicts in coverage assignments. In my random check of six of those reporters and editors, all confirmed that they are regularly required to disclose such information.

And recently, The Post's newsroom intranet added a list of holdings by the parent Washington Post Co., along with the names and primary business affiliations of its directors. The instructions are clear: "When we write about something that could impact, positively or negatively, one of those interests, we should be as transparent as possible about disclosing those relationships."

An example was the lead story in Thursday's paper about plans for a public stock offering by General Motors. It noted that last year the Obama administration had forced the resignation of GM chief executive G. Richard "Rick" Wagoner Jr., "who is now a board member of The Washington Post Co."

"We went out of our way to mention him in the story so that we could disclose that he's on the board," said deputy business editor Alan Sipress.

The list of Washington Post Co. holdings and interests is extensive, and the relationships are complex. Whenever a news story discusses investment giant Berkshire Hathaway or its chief executive, Warren E. Buffett, it must note that he is a Post Co. board member. Likewise, stories about Facebook must mention that its board includes Post Co. chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham. Any story about LivingSocial, the consumer-oriented social networking site run by Tim O'Shaughnessy, must disclose that he is Graham's son-in-law.

As a check, I reviewed Post stories for the previous two years that prominently mentioned any of the parent company's 11 directors. With few exceptions, their Post connection was disclosed.

Similarly, the newsroom has been instructed to note the ownership link in stories about Slate Magazine and a variety of other Web sites run by The Post Co.'s online publishing division. The same goes for Post-owned publications such as Foreign Policy magazine, the free tabloid daily Express, the Spanish-language newspaper El Tiempo Latino and a handful of community newspapers serving the Washington area.

But disclosure of The Post Co.'s ownership of Kaplan is especially critical because of Kaplan's outsize importance to the overall bottom line. The Kaplan division, which offers higher education, test preparation and professional training services, accounted for 62 percent of The Post Co.'s total second-quarter revenues. Its higher education unit, the subject of government scrutiny and proposed regulations, will be in the news for months to come.

Disclosure aside, a separate issue is The Post's commitment to following the story. "We will give Kaplan the same level of scrutiny as we give the rest of the industry," said Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, who runs the local news staff that handles education reporting.

Business columnist Steven Pearlstein was admirably transparent about Kaplan's importance to The Post when he recently wrote about the for-profit college controversy. Noting that Kaplan's profits have helped offset the newspaper's operating losses, he added that while "we in the Post newsroom have nothing to do with Kaplan, we've all benefited from its financial success." Readers appreciate that kind of candor.

I've often criticized The Post for insufficient transparency on everything from news sources to refusing to share its ethics policies with readers. But on its commitment to disclose self-interest, praise is deserved.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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