A Huffington Post article published last week drew attention to Inside Higher Ed's acquisition by a private equity firm with investments in for-profit higher ed, sparking conversation as to whether the arrangement now presented a conflict of interest for the trade publication.
Inside Higher Ed co-founder Scott Jaschik told Education Dive on Friday that he regretted the lack of transparency in the sale of controlling interest to Quad Partners, which actually occurred in November, but that part of the arrangement is that the firm remains hands-off when it comes to editorial content. "Obviously with any potential purchase, we talked to Quad and we talked to others about these issues. We stressed editorial independence 100%, and they were comfortable with that," Jaschik said. "Never once has there been anything that challenges that."
He and fellow co-founder Doug Lederman have also issued an editors' note reiterating that promise, but some media ethics experts have their reservations. According to Dr. Richard Goedkoop, a recently retired professor of communication at Philadelphia's La Salle University, there is "unequivocally" a conflict of interest.
"The firm that has bought the publication now has a financial interest in the industry that it is supposed to be covering objectively," he said. "It is difficult to assume that its editorial focus will not be compromised by the management's knowledge that it will do better if for-profit colleges are analyzed in a more positive manner."
According to Goedkoop, it's not so much whether or not that conflict occurs, but the audience's perception that it could. This sentiment was echoed by Joe Mathewson, an associate professor who teaches "Ethics and Law of Journalism" at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.
"Even if the parent keeps hands-off, the problem is how reporters writing about for-profit education might feel constrained to avoid or tailor their coverage," Mathewson said. "You can never know."
Inside Higher Ed readers commenting in Education Dive's Higher Ed Management group on LinkedIn were largely optimistic, saying they had not yet noticed any changes in quality and that they believe the publication's founders when they say they're committed to objectivity. Still, others felt it would be only a matter of time as additional regulatory pressure is applied to the for-profit sector and reporters are expected to cover the publication's new owners independently.
Only time will tell, but as Jaschik and Lederman said in their editors' note, "We urge you to shout — loudly — if you see any change in what we cover (or don't cover), and how we approach it."