Friday, February 13, 2015

NEWSPAPER ETHICS: MAINTAINING (OR NOT) THE LINE BETWEEN DOLLARS AND SENSE

In the late 1970's newspaper editorial and advertising departments across the nation faced off in an epic nose-to-nose battle over a "revenue-generating" idea proposed by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., makers of Camel cigarettes (my brand -- the unfiltered ones -- at the time).

The cigarette maker approached newspaper ad executives with an idea they said would generate revenue from the sports statistics that virtually all daily newspapers in the country were already running as news copy that was generally not specifically supported by ad dollars. It almost goes without saying that advertising department's were pretty much unanimously in favor of the idea.

The proposal called for participating papers to run what essentially would be an ad frame -- duplicating the frame on the front of a Camels package -- around a full page of sports stats. At the top of the frame would be a large page header reading "Camel Scoreboard" and at the bottom there would be an about two-inch-deep by six-column-wide shelf ad promoting Camel cigarettes. In exchange for running this ad frame daily around information already being gathered and published, R.J. Reynolds offered to pay each participating newspaper's going rate for a full page ad.

I've no doubt that such an offer today would be snapped up in the blink of an eye by every cash-strapped newspaper in the United States . That's NOW, but not THEN, when ad revenues were still soaring and newspapers where achieving profit percentages that made them the envy of even oil and utility companies.

In those days, the line between dollars and journalism ethics was very clearly defined.

At the time, I was managing editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and based upon advice from other members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and members of the national and state Associated Press Managing Editors organizations -- as well as the icky feeling the proposal gave me and Sports Editor Tom Patterson even without input from colleagues -- I declined to go along with the proposal based on journalistic ethical considerations. My decision to just say no -- perhaps a little surprisingly even then -- won the support of the newspaper's publisher, Robert Hederman Sr.

I was not alone in my opposition to what now must seem like a very generous offer from R.J. Reynolds. Virtually every reputable daily newspaper in the country also rejected the proposal based on ethical considerations. Mainly, it was felt that framing the page as requested would make it appear as though news people were gathering and publishing the statics for (ergo, working for) the makers of Camels as opposed to providing it as an informational public service of the newspaper. Some also opposed it based on what might today be best described as the Joe Camel objection. Much of the statistical information run by papers was for local high school sports and was well read by teens. At the time, the office of the U.S. Surgeon General was just beginning it's push against tobacco usage -- which eventually resulted in warnings on tobacco product packages and newspapers ceasing to run tobacco ads -- and many editors and publishers wanted to avoid anything that might seem like enticements for teens to use to tobacco products. The Camel Scoreboard sputtered along briefly and then went up in smoke.

Times have changed in the intervening years since the collapse of the Camel Scoreboard concept when U.S. newspapers were still fiscally fat and sassy and virtually no reputable daily, regardless of size, ran ads on news section fronts, much less on their front pages.

Now, the newspaper industry -- in the continuing throes of financial a crisis -- is debating two new and similar revenue-generation concepts that threaten to further blur, if not totally obliterate, the line that has traditionally separated dollars and news content.

The two concepts are "content underwriting" and "crowdfunding." Although they are somewhat different, both concepts involve pay-for-play strategies that I find ethically repugnant and the worst threats yet to the once treasured American newspaper value of news objectivity, since both seem to me to be first cousins to what we in the newspaper industry have known for years as advatorial writing.

I find both concepts at least as onerous -- and as detrimental to a newspaper's credibility and perceived ethics -- as the Camel Scoreboard idea. They are, in essence, journalistic prostitution.

Under the content underwriting concept, certain groups would provide a newspaper with money to "enhance" specific areas of coverage. For instance, a local arts group might -- as they did with the Greensboro, N.C., News & Record last June -- provide funding so the newspaper will provide more coverage of arts in the community.

In conjunction with crowdfunding -- which seeks a broader base of "community" support requiring more people to each give fewer dollars -- a newspaper's general readership would be surveyed to find out what issues, topics or areas of coverage are of most interest to most people. Funds would then be solicited to help defray the expense of providing enhanced reporting on those issues, topics or areas of coverage.

Let's be totally honest here. Does anyone really think that any reputable newspaper would consider either content underwriting or crowd funding if they still had reporting staffs large enough to adequately cover everything important in and to the communities they serve? I don't think so.

What's more, I think that to satisfy the coverage underwriters in either concept, a newspaper will have to rob Peter to pay Paul. Realistically, I don't foresee any newspaper that decides to "take advantage" of either concept hiring additional staff to provide the promised "enhanced" coverage. Instead, to achieve the desired -- and paid for -- result, they would have to begin skimping on other areas of coverage -- areas that, while not as ethereal as the arts, might have a greater impact on a larger number of people. As I see it, the result would be even greater general community dissatisfaction with coverage by a larger readership audience. Editors would be having to ask themselves on an almost daily basis what they are willing to skip because their arts organization content underwriters expect (and the dollars demand) that they cover, say, a performance by the community orchestra instead of something that possibly could have a greater impact on the community at large.

There is also the question of where the line gets drawn as far as who gets to underwrite what sorts of coverage and content and how much control do they get to exercise over what gets written and published. For instance, what if the local automobile dealers association is allowed to underwrite enhanced coverage of all things automotive? I can guarantee that the enhanced coverage they have in mind does not included a newspaper series on widespread repair ripoffs by local dealer service departments like the one we published when I was managing editor of The Clarion-Ledger. (Please see my July 22, 2014, post MODERN MEDIA PERIL: NEWSPAPER INTESTINAL FORTITUDE VS. ADVERTISER BULLYING.) So, in order to maintain the flow of added cash for enhanced automotive coverage, does the newspaper simply forego such a series that could be very valuable to the general readership and if so what does that say about the paper's journalism ethics and credibility?

Frankly, as disturbed as I am about the content underwriting concept, I am even more put off by the idea of crowdfunding.

Not only do I think it's fraught with all the same potential problems as content underwriting, but I am also seriously rankled by the idea that large groups of readers should be asked to pay additional for the type of coverage they have every right to expect they'll get in a newspaper they already pay for daily. It's my feeling that the executives at any newspaper that wants readers to do that should just go ahead and have the balls -- and honesty -- to institute the sort of price increase that will allow them to hire enough new staff to provide the sort of coverage readers expect and deserve. Enough said.

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For further reading on the two concepts, I suggest this piece by former News & Record Editor John Robinson http://johnlrobinson.com/2014/07/paying-for-journalism-community-based-crowdfunding/.

This by Corey Hutchinson, Columbia Journalism Review's Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina correspondent, http://www.cjr.org/united_states_project/revenue_experiment_throwdown_crowdfunding_vs_underwriting.php?page=all

This by media blogger Steve Buttry https://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/could-crowdfunding-help-restore-some-newspaper-beats/.




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