Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Renowned media blogger Jim Romenesko (jimromenesko.com) reported recently that Ken Hart, a 25-year veteran reporter for the Ashland (Ky.) Daily Independent was fired over a Facebook post criticizing a local auto dealer's TV commercial featuring his kids "baby talking" about the dealership -- Fannin Automotive.

Hart, who, according to the media blogger, has frequently been critical of such advertisers as Hobby Lobby, with regard to its U.S. Supreme Court birth control coverage case, and Chick-Fil-A, told Romenesko: “It appeared to me [that they] were being coached to talk like babies because it was ‘cute, I [wrote on Facebook] that making them do this was likely to get them teased unmercifully in school.”

The next day, according to Romenesko, Hart was called into Publisher Eddie Blakely's office and fired. Here is the link to Romenesko's full report on the firing: http://jimromenesko.com/2014/07/21/kentucky-reporter-is-fired-for-criticizing-a-local-car-dealers-tv-ads/

Considering how kids are -- despite national efforts to combat schoolyard bullying and teasing -- Hart is probably right, the dealer's kids likely will be teased unmercifully and possibly even traumatically over the commercial when school starts this fall. And that, in my book, makes his Facebook comment fair criticism. It should be noted that he apparently merely criticized the commercial and not the dealership per se.

Speaking in retrospect, Hart told Romenesko:  “Should I have posted what I did? Probably not. Did I deserve to lose my job over it? I personally don’t think so."

From a personal perspective, I think Hart's firing is outrageous. However, I believe that it is, unfortunately, symptomatic of a frightening change in the way the nation's financially troubled newspapers are reacting to bullying by advertisers who see things they object to in the newspaper or on social media posts by news staffer and go off on hell-raising tangents.

I speak from personal experience having, over my nearly 45-year career as a newspaper reporter and editor, frequently (and often unknowingly) gotten crosswise with an advertiser.

The most recent -- and thankfully final -- such incident occurred about 18 months before my retirement as editor of The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, on April 30, 2013. Fortunately, I was working for a great publisher, who on several occasions during the 10 years I worked under him went through hell with advertisers on my and the newsroom's behalf. Had I had a different, weak-kneed, publisher, I might have faced the same fate as Ken Hart.

As it happens, this incident also involved automobile dealerships.

We ran a front-page story on the opening of an upscale auto dealership for a luxury brand new to the Rio Grande Valley in one of McAllen's smaller neighboring cities. Probably because it was a competitor, the story thoroughly pissed off the owner of the metro area's largest group of dealerships that together comprised our single largest local advertiser. He contacted our advertising director and the Publisher Olaf Frandsen threatening to cancel his advertising, contending he never got that sort of play when he opened a new dealership.

In an effort to placate him, Olaf arranged a meeting at the paper among himself, me, our advertising director and the irate dealer and his marketing director. I was forced to sit in silence as the outraged mega-dealer, who I had previously regarded as a friend, browbeat me and called me and my staff "irresponsible and incompetent." He even accused me and the reporter who wrote the story of taking a payoff to run it. In retrospect, we might have (and I repeat "might have," but I doubt it) avoided the problem had the story run on the business front instead of Page 1. However, I believe it deserved the play it was given because the dealership was lured to the neighboring city with incentives that stirred up a controversy in that community. Some of the stories regarding the controversial incentives had run on the front page.

In the end, Frandsen -- who was wonderfully skilled at calming waters without surrendering news integrity -- managed to smooth over the situation. However, as penance, a couple of weeks later, I wrote a story that validly was news that went with a full Business Page presentation announcing that the irate mega-dealer was building a new store to house yet another luxury brand new to the Valley.

I should point out that this was not the first time I had gotten crosswise with this particular auto dealer. For instance, years earlier, he took great offense and caused an uproar when we ran -- on an inside page -- a national wire story that accurately described one of the brands he then carried as Detroit's worst gas guzzler.

Although attempted bullying of newspapers by their advertisers -- and particularly by auto dealers -- is hardly a new phenomenon, it does seem to me that over my last few years before retirement that advertisers became more brazen in their intimidation attempts as papers sank deeper into their economic woes and advertising lineage and revenue shrank.

I believe and fear that newspapers today are far more susceptible than ever to caving in to this sort of pressure designed, in some instances, to force things that are not news into print and keep things that are news out of print.

However, it has not always been thus.

While I was managing editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., in the late 1970s and early '80s -- before it was bought by Gannett -- we published a series on unnecessary auto repairs done by both independent auto shops and dealership service departments in the area. We well documented numerous instances where unnecessary and costly repairs were made even by well-respected auto dealership shops.

Although it enraged local auto dealers, Publisher Robert Hederman Sr. and Editor Tom Hederman stood by the series, refusing to stop or retract it. Consequently, the local auto dealers' association encouraged an advertising boycott that most -- but not all -- dealers went along with, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue for the paper.

The boycott, however, only lasted a little over 30 days before the participating dealers realized they were losing more in sales than the newspaper was losing in ad revenue. A group of dealers met with Robert and Tom -- who were not only respectively publisher and editor, but also the owners -- and informed them that they felt that the "lesson" they were teaching the paper had gone on long enough and they were "ready to start advertising again."

As was their southern gentlemanly habit, Robert and Tom politely thanked the dealers for wishing to return to the advertising fold. Then they informed the dealers that since they had not advertised for over a month, their advertising contracts had been nullified and that if they wanted to advertise again they were welcome to do so under new contracts at a 10 percent increase. All sheepishly signed the new, more costly contracts and the newspaper quickly made up for and significantly exceeded the lost revenues.

Simply because they can't afford to, I seriously doubt that many of today's newspaper top executives would display the sort of intestinal fortitude with which Robert and Tom Hederman countered the bullying by those auto dealers. And THAT, in my opinion, is a pretty sad state of affairs.


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