Private Label News: Impartial Coverage Brought To You By…


March 8, 2010

The great debate about how to pay for the news media future
has centered on advertising, foundation financing and subscriptions. But Chicago entrepreneurs Jeff
Leitner and Brian Timpone think we should consider a fourth model; something they call
Private Label News“.

In a YouTube video they produced called “The Big Idea”,
Leitner and Timpone pitch directly to potential clients. Who are they? “They
tend to be organizations that are best in class and nobody knows it or have a
unique take on the marketplace and nobody knows it,” said Leitner to me in a
phone conversation. “Organizations that need the market place to understand the
issue more fully, so the public would know why our client is best suited to
help them.”

I think of it as being more like “Guiding Light”, the
long-running, recently-cancelled soap opera that was wholly sponsored by and
owned by Proctor and Gamble for over fifty years. As a sponsored television
show, P&G paid ABC for the airtime and put on their show. ABC acted as a
conduit for the show, whatever the content might be, because P&G paid for
it and produced it themselves.

But “Light” was a soap opera and this is news.

I know Leitner professionally, and some months ago he
invited me one afternoon to meet Timpone to help them hash out their idea.
Mostly we talked about various ways news media companies attempt to make money
from their products. The word “journalism” never came up in our conversation.
Instead the discussion was entirely focused on how to actually make money from
news.

For that reason, there are many who will have a problem with
Private Label News. There’s also an inherent conflict of interest problem – if
I am paying for the news coverage, there’s a good chance it might be slanted in
my favor. Italy, whose billionaire Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, owns most
of his country’s news media, is struggling with this problem in a big way, but Berlusconi doesn’t seem to have problem with it.

Unlike Berlusconi’s Mediaset, Private Label News does not
aim to cover the big stories of the day. Leitner and Timpone imagine it will be
interesting to those who want the smaller stories of the day to get coverage.
As the “Big Idea” video suggests, it would cover industries that have lost
their coverage as a result of shrinking news budgets.

“Timpone has been doing this for years on behalf of the U.S
Chamber of Commerce,” said Leitner. “They want good coverage of the state
Attorney Generals offices, [because] AG’s are a real battleground on the issues
for tort reform debate. That’s a
real good example of turning the lights on in the gym so people can draw their
own conclusions.”

The news service Leitner refers to is Legalnewsline.com. It
works just like any other wire service, and plenty of local newspapers quote
from it. It is hard news, covering
a beat that nobody else wants to or has the resources to cover. It has a few
small advertisers. The “About Us” page doesn’t draw any connection to the
U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Frankly, as a reader, I am not quite sure what to think of
this approach. It seems impartial, and I know Leitner well enough to know he is
not hiding anything from me. But the average reader would not entirely know who
is behind legalnewswire.com – so wouldn’t knowing that information change how their
news is received?

But then again, think of all the talking points fed to Glenn
Beck and Keith Olberman by less than impartial sources. All the effort expended by various PR agencies to
influence reporters – the junkets, the personal conversations.

When I first started working in politics, I helped put on a
“frozen chicken bowling” event with famed chef Wolfgang Puck in the U.S.
Capitol, so Congressmen and the national press would learn how chicken
categorized as “fresh” are actually frozen, according to USDA rules. The event
was a smash hit, with stories in papers and TV stations across the country.
Soon after, the USDA changed the rule on what constituted as “fresh” chicken.

The event was sponsored by smaller local chicken producers that didn’t have the resources to freeze their chickens and ship them across the country. My lobbying firm cast it as consumer issue, but for the local producers, it was a money issue.

None of the TV stations mentioned the appetizers handed to
them personally by Puck, or that they got to bowl chickens with famous
Senators. That must have impacted them, right?

Private Label News is on to something. I am
just not sure where it will take us.