About MARTA, SaportaReport and building a new journalism model

By Chris Schroder, publisher of SaportaReport

Recently, SaportaReport itself has been in the news regarding a contract that publisher Chris Schroder signed with MARTA to begin a Thought Leadership column in the near future. Some writers – and we fear some readers – might be confused as to the nature of our relationship with MARTA. We thought this would be a good opportunity to clarify our journalistic role in the community, as well as our efforts to build innovative revenue streams to support our new model for online journalism.

A little history first

Newspapers, radio and TV stations set up a business model many decades ago to provide for independent and fair reporting. Journalistic insiders call it “church and state,” meaning the sales divisions of these operations sell as much advertising as possible to support the the costs of producing and delivering their content. Advertising was sold to some of the same retailers, businesses and political/governmental entities that the news reporters and editorial writers were covering in the editorial sections or news reports.

When we say “church and state,” we mean that these sales are made with the understanding that the news reporters would not alter their coverage because the sales were made. Having worked for six daily newspapers throughout the South, I can tell you there have been many uncomfortable times when the news side of the organizations for which I worked were publishing very unflattering stories or columns about organizations that were also advertising within the same pages.

Sometimes, the advertisers were so upset at the news coverage they would threaten to cancel their advertising and their subscriptions to the paper – all of which was in their right. I’ve never witnessed – and rarely heard about – instances in American journalism when advertisers were able to influence the writers or editors in the professional newsrooms. Those departments operated independently from the advertising departments.

Not all reporting that is published in print, on the airwaves or on the Internet follow these rules. In recent years, some of these lines have been blurred as publications build a new model for revenue. At SaportaReport, this is not the case.

SaportaReport and Thought Leadership

The reason I got involved with SaportaReport is because it was founded by Maria Saporta, whom I believe is one of the most trusted and honest reporters in the Atlanta market for perhaps the past three decades. Her reputation as a fair and responsible reporter is legendary.

She does have her passions – particularly for the future of Atlanta, public transportation and parks – and sometimes her news coverage or opinion columns have led people to think she is crusading unfairly. I don’t think so.

Jeff Cochran is our salesperson and I serve as this website’s publisher. In our roles, we talk to many businesses and organizations about how they could support our efforts by advertising with us or sponsoring us. In an effort to build new revenue streams, I suggested SaportaReport start a relatively innovative concept called Thought Leadership.

It is sort of a cross between sponsorship and editorial in that different organizations have agreed to pay SaportaReport an annual fee in return for us hosting and promoting their individual websites that discuss topics relating to their industries and/or areas of expertise. So far, our thought leaders – a mortgage company, a healthcare firm, an architecture firm and a technology attorney write very interesting blogs and post photos and videos on topics we hope you’ll find interesting. I host a public relations blog written by our team at Schroder PR, my “day job.”

I also contribute a weekly column to SaportaReport called Moments in which I interview people about that one moment that changed the course of their life and contributed in some way to our community. Sometimes, I have found interesting Moments participants who are also clients of my PR firm. In those cases, Maria has asked me to disclose that relationship in the article, which I have. That lets you know if I have some relationship with the person that I am profiling that is not entirely objective. You can choose to weigh what I write with that information in your mind.

Maria and the other writers on SaportaReport are committed to disclosing any relationships they have that might be significant to readers in order to weigh their perspectives. In other cases, you should trust that we are writing with as much objectivity and balance as possible for people trained in journalism, but who live and work and participate in the metro Atlanta community.

MARTA

Earlier this year, after long discussions, MARTA agreed to sign a contract to participate in sponsoring a thought leadership column. I’ve had many discussions with Lyle Harris, MARTA’s chief spokesman and media relations press officer, about the benefits of such an investment and how and when the public entity should start publishing their weekly blogs. Those columns should start soon. We will be welcoming a few other organizations in the coming months who are also close to signing contracts for their own thought leadership columns. Please let me know if I can present this opportunity to your firm. You can get more information at www.saportareport.com/advertising.

This week, Maria chose to write a column about State Rep. Mike Jacobs, chairman of the legislative MARTA Oversight Committee (MARTOC), that was critical of his involvement in the selection of a new MARTA general manager to replace retiring CEO Beverly Scott. Many readers were praiseworthy of Maria’s efforts to point out the relationship between Mike and an internal candidate who was not selected for the position and remarks Mike made to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Others thought Maria was too critical. Some have taken the step of reporting MARTA’s purchase of a thought leadership site at SaportaReport as evidence that Maria was not objective in her coverage. I disagree. Maria has covered MARTA for years and her coverage at times has been positive. Other times it has been critical. I think she has been fair, though I personally do not know Mike.

That might change. Today I was informed that as MARTOC chair, Mike has requested – and will receive – copies of emails between Lyle and me and Lyle and Maria. I also know reporter Richard Belcher of WSB-TV has requested MARTA and SaportaReport documents and some bloggers have commented on Maria’s coverage.

This is all good for you, the informed reader and resident of metro Atlanta. Close scrutiny by a reporters such as Maria and Richard, or by the legislature means that your tax dollars are being watched closely and that oversight of organizations within our growing metro area are being actively managed by many parties – all of whose reports are available to you online.

Journalism is evolving. So is SaportaReport, and MARTA and even state government. I hope you will continue reading and participating as we make our best efforts to provide an emerging destination on which you can read excellent and fair coverage of issues and people that impact you and the region. At the same time, I will do my best to find increasing revenue streams to support our efforts.

Please let us know what you think.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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