On first glance, Here/Say Media looks like any other digital media startup, complete with a snazzy logo and with pledges to expand local news readership.
But, when you dig a little deeper, it turns out the publication is one of two projects run by Civic Action Labs, a social-welfare nonprofit with an IRS designation that does not require it to disclose its donors and allows for political lobbying.
Although Here/Say Media was only launched three weeks ago and so far has published stories about drug use, school reopening and DA Chesa Boudin, journalism organizations and ethicists said that its IRS designation and its lack of transparency around its donors raises flags about its intentions.
The 501(c)4 designation has been used handily by any number of political lobbying groups, including the National Rifle Association and the Democratic Socialists of America.
Here/Say’s founders — Kanishka Cheng, a former City Hall politico, and Griffin Gaffney, a Harvard alum who spent most of his post-graduation years working for tech companies in the Bay — defended the decision not to disclose its donors.
“We’re just not sure that our donors want to be disclosed yet,” said Cheng. “And our donors are not involved in our day-to-day operations at all. But I understand that there could be a perception that they are, and that will influence how people think and feel about the work that we’re putting out.”
However, that refusal raised red flags for media observers.
“Approach anything on the site with a good deal of skepticism,” said Penelope Abernathy, a former Wall Street Journal and New York Times executive and media economics expert. “I can’t be certain of who is funding the site, if there is a certain political agenda or if there have been articles in which the person being profiled paid to have a favorable article written about them.”
Sue Cross, the executive director of the Institute for Nonprofit News, added, “When you list your donors, you’re really showing good faith and trust to your readers. You’re saying, ‘We’re going to tell you who’s financing this coverage, and you can make your own decision about how you view that.’’
Journalism experts interviewed for this story said that they could not name one reputable nonprofit newsroom configured as a c-4.
Major nonprofit publications like The Texas Tribune and more local publications like CalMatters are all 501(c)3 nonprofits or, like Mission Local, are fiscally sponsored projects of c-3 nonprofits, so you can find information about their donors through the IRS. And many of these sites also list their donors on their website, as Mission Local does.
Cheng, who is a former legislative aide to Supervisor Mark Farrell and also served as Mayor London Breed’s liaison to the Board of Supervisors from July 2018 to April 2019, said Civic Action Labs registered as a c-4 to leave open the possibility for political advocacy down the road. She defended the decision to not disclose who the donors are, though that could change next year.
Here/Say Media is actually one of two projects of Civic Action Labs. The other is Together SF, a volunteer network. Margaux Kelly, another former Farrell aide, is also on Civic Action Labs’ leadership team.
When asked about transparency, Cheng said the two have been public about their affiliation, tweeting about the companies and putting their co-founder titles on their LinkedIn accounts. The two co-founders are not involved in the editorial process, she said.
But having a media company “co-founded” by people from tech and politics might be something readers would want to know.
“Why would you require people to do detective work to find out something that should be pretty apparent?” asked Ed Wasserman, the former dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, who has written widely on journalism ethics.
Cheng does not see the site’s lack of transparency as problematic. She sees it as allowing the work to be read on its own terms. “We want to have the work stand on its own for a little while.”
But asking for the site’s work to stand on its own while markedly declining to reveal who’s underwriting the site is a pretty big ask. Especially when taken with Here/Say’s Twitter feed, where the tweet with the most traction spotlights Mayor London Breed using a questionable narrative about outside homeless interlopers using the city’s services.
(Cheng defended the Tweet: “It’s not like we’re highlighting her in a positive light — it’s literally videos of what she said.” But facts, when presented uncritically, can still tell stories or support political goals.)
“If they believe the readers’ knowledge of who their funders are would influence the readers’ judgment about the reporting, then that strengthens the argument for disclosure,” said Wasserman, the ethics expert. “If concealing that information would somehow affect the reader’s judgment about the credibility of the reporting, then concealing that information is really problematic.”
The reporters for Here/Say Media also said they know who the donors are, though they, like Cheng, would not disclose any names. (Here/Say has a policy that states, “Our team retains full creative freedom and journalistic independence from our donors and board.”)
Cross, the nonprofit news director, said an argument could be made that it’s better if the reporters don’t know who the donors are to avoid a conflict-of-interest, and if the journalists do know the donors, there is even more reason to share that information with readers.
She paused. “But again,” she reminded. “It’s not really about the journalists — it’s about the public, the reader, and ensuring that they know who is funding the work.”