New York Times Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane spends his current column tsk-tsking the paper for this:

READERS of The Choice, a blog by reporter Jacques Steinberg, encountered something unusual — and for some of them, something very disturbing — when they clicked on a link in the second paragraph of his Sept. 29 blog post.

It was a page inviting them to pay $225 for an online Times course,“Introduction to College Admissions,taught by Mr. Steinberg.

Said offending page:

Inside the College Admissions Process

October 13 – November 10, 2010, Although course has begun, registration is still open.

Instructor: Jacques Steinberg$225


Mr. Steinberg’s course is one of many such offerings that are available through The New York Times Knowledge Network, a growing enterprise that began in 2008 and now includes 100 courses.

Most of these courses are presented in partnership with universities and other educational entities. This year, though, The Times launched a phase of the venture in which the curriculum is produced entirely by The Times newsroom. The Times-only program currently comprises 12 courses in three subject areas: journalism and writingscience of health; and parenting teens.

Do we see the possibility of enterprise driving editorial here? Times readers sure do.

Stephen J.A. Ward, who heads the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, notes that without more explanation from The Times, it is possible to construct scenarios that don’t reflect well on it.

There’s a “public perception that something funny is going on; that money is getting in the way of objective judgments and what is newsworthy,” he observed. “I think that if they were to continue to go along this line, more readers would pipe up.”

In particular, Mr. Ward suggested, there’s the appearance that perhaps a commercial project is driving The Times’s journalism — that, in his words, “the course wags the editorial dog.”

This is a whole new kind of journalistic mission creep.

Kind of creepy.

John R. Carroll is media analyst for NPR's Here & Now and senior news analyst for WBUR in Boston. He also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town.
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