Tuesday, October 16, 2007

"All The News That's Fit To Rent" Prompts Controversy At Commercial Appeal


As The Commercial Appeal gets ready for its star turn as location for the movie, “Nothing But the Truth,” the film’s name has special irony in light of the recent internal controversy at our daily newspaper about the sponsorship of news coverage.

It’s created a tense atmosphere at The Commercial Appeal and given credence to deep suspicions in the newsroom about the current direction of the paper.

The idea itself has all the earmarks of groupthink on the business side of the house, but unfortunately, it didn’t encounter any strong resistance from editor Chris Peck, who should have known better.

Give Light

We’re sympathetic to his plight. The motto of Scripps may be, “Give light and people will find their own way,” but these days, the chain – trying to prop up its newspapers’ value until they can sell most of them – is willing to put a price tag on both the light and the way.

Caught between calls from Cincinnati to increase revenues and the blurring lines between journalism and infotainment, he apparently succumbed to the urge to “monetize the content.” (These days, you frequently hear the word, monetize, in connection with websites, such as “monetizing visitors.”) That phrase alone should have never crossed his lips, much less words in favor of a sponsorship for a news series.

Instead, “monetizing the content” led him initally to enter into an agreement with Northwest Airlines to “sponsor” an around-the-world series of articles about Memphis’ strong relationships with great world cities. While there was a presumption that those cities would just coincidentally include the airlines’ major hubs, it fell apart and FedEx picked up the sponsorship.

Strike Two

Here’s the second mistake. After selling news coverage to the corporate giant, Mr. Peck assigned Trevor Aaronson to write the series with Beijing as one of his first ports of call.

It was an amazing choice. Mr. Aaronson is arguably the best hire that The Commercial Appeal has made in years, a tough, hard-hitting investigative reporter who pulls no punches in his questioning or his writing. His impact at the CA has been immediate, and a call from him is now greeted with as much dread as one from his veteran colleague, Marc Perrusquia.

He was an odd choice for a corporate-sponsored junket, but nonetheless, it was his assignment, and he appeared to relish the project. So, off he went on his travels, and upon his return, he turns his attention to writing the series.

Real News

Unsurprisingly, as he is prone to do, he set out to report “real” news from his trip, and this was not the original intent of those who came up with this ill-conceived idea. So, he writes an article about FedEx and Beijing, and it provokes immediate heartburn at The Commercial Appeal.

His coverage was considered less than flattering by Mr. Peck, who summoned him and Assistant Managing Editor (News) Louis Graham – himself a considerable force as an investigative reporter in his reporting days - to his office to discuss ways to fix the copy.

Before it was over, Mr. Graham was sent home, and Aaronson was left with the assignment to write the kind of copy on which the sponsor would look more kindly. It all ratcheted up a notch when he refused to write, a gutsy and honorable call on his part.

Or so one popular version of the sequence of events goes in the newsroom of The Commercial Appeal. However, in the end, however, it's not the sequence that matters to us; it's the sponsorship policy.

Explosive Coverage

The controvery captivated the newsroom, where the sponsorship of the series of articles by Northwest Airlines had been greeted with raised eyebrows when information about it was posted on the bulletin board some months ago. However, when it became clear that advertising would influence news coverage, the questionable journalistic decision led every one to take sides, and it was clear where the sentiment of the newsroom lay.

A petition was begun and attracted the signatures of most reporters, protesting the entire philosophy of taking money for news coverage. In a world where editorial writers often see the slippery slope of bad public policy, the first slip for the paper was the little noticed Boyle Investment Company sponsorship of the Sunday business column, "Done Deals."

But with the controversy over the FedEx sponsorship, the issue reached a whole new level, and its intensity resulted in a call from management for the Poynter Institute to mediate the disagreement.

Strike 3

Mistake #3: Poynter of course sided with the reporter and assistant managing editor.

Clearly, the bitterness of many reporters is raw, as one says that if the movie soon to film at the newspaper needs “someone to play an editor, we have one.”

Meanwhile, it’s also said that maybe the newspaper should sell a sponsorship to Smith and Wesson for daily murder coverage, or perhaps the Shelby County Board of Commissioners should sponsor Alex Doniach’s coverage of county government. While that notion borders on the absurd, who would have thought that journalists would accept “sponsorships” from the Bush Administration either?

Next...

So, with support from the news staff already tenuous and now almost nonexistent and with his leadership in tatters, Mr. Peck is faced with the really tough question: Now what?

Perhaps, a good place for him to start is to re-read the mission statement printed on the editorial page, especially the bullet that says: “to act independently and fairly.” In hindsight, it’s difficult to imagine how Mr. Peck expected to navigate the shoals of journalistic objectivity and sponsored news.

Like most newspapers these days, our venerable daily seems totally perplexed with how to fight declining circulation in the digital age. One thing seems pretty obvious: the most precious commodities for any newspaper still remain respect and integrity.

Listen To The Talent

The present leadership at The Commercial Appeal has gotten perilously close to exhausting it. At a time when deeper coverage of the news could be the differentiator for the "Old Reliable," it’s cut veteran staff and exiled others, it’s cut corners and it shows. Its view of a future built on a balkanized region with a definite suburban slant not only shortchanges the paper, but most of all, does a disservice to its readers.

If there’s good news to be derived from this dispute, maybe it’s the indication that editor and publisher might actually be listening to its own reporters. It’s too soon to tell whether it’s sincere or just crisis management, but it’s time. After all, these are the people who know Memphis best and perhaps, faced with no solutions that are working, it’s worth management listening to them.

In the end, the old adage is still true: news is whatever an underpaid, overworked reporter says it is. Attempts by editors and publishers to manage the news so often end in disaster.

And right now, the fences to be mended by the editor are in a shambles. There already was enough discontent at the newspaper over incidents in which the editor seemed to abandon his reporting staff, notably Daniel Connolly's fine article about a local bank that makes home loans to illegal aliens. On the Sunday following the story, Mr. Peck threw his reporter under the bus in his editor's column, shocking a jaded newroom that thought they'd seen it all and providing a clear indication of where the editorial loyalty lay.

Crisis Management 101

Speaking of crisis management, a few years ago, the CA gave the University of Memphis a much-needed editorial slap for its latest P.R. gaffe and suggested that it get serious about a crisis management plan. The same goes for the CA.

The first rule of crisis management applies: walk toward your problem, not away from it. That’s why about now it would be good for Mr. Peck to devote his column to this issue and come clean with readers who want the reassurance that the news they are reading doesn’t come with a for sale sign attached to it.

Meanwhile, we hope the CA is getting enough money for serving as a set for the Matt-Dillon starred movie, “Nothing But The Truth,” that it makes up for this imprudent idea to produce a new source of revenue.

In announcing his movie, writer-director Rod Lurie said: “I’ve been interested in the heroics of reporters…for a very long time.” It’s a fitting wake-up call in management at The Commercial Appeal. Now’s the time for them to be heroes, too, and they begin by protecting the integrity of their own news-gathering operation.

44 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bravo!

LeftWingCracker said...

Peck should resign immediately, as should anyone else at the CA who supported this fiasco.

bob said...

Ditto that, LWC. And thanks to SCM for reporting the story.

Of course, this is yet another example of how the CA has become one of the many embarrassments of Memphis. How unfortunate for anyone who works there who still believes their job #1 is journalism.

Anonymous said...

If it weren't for this blog, who would have even known about this garbage? Good job. Shine a light in the dark recesses of the CA.

memphisj said...

As a former employee there, I knew this was bubbling below the surface and would soon raise the stink it deserves. How sad that the paper's integrity is gone. It calls into question every major story the paper has done under Peck. How many others has he sold to the highest bidder?
The ethical rules at the CA used to be very strict. I can guarantee you that even today if a reporter was caught doing this they'd be out on their ass in a second. Used to be any freelance jobs, even for another editorial client had to be cleared with your editor before acceptance. This is much, much worse. Hopefully its the end of Peck in this town.

Anonymous said...

I am also a former CA employee, and this isn't the first time Peck has run afoul of journalistic standards... All one needs to do is look into the fiasco regarding the Spokane newspaper's promotion of a downtown parking garage that was being built on land owned by the newspaper's publisher and that involved some questionable federal grant applications.

The man has never stood up for his newsroom, and he never will.

Memphis deserves better. Thanks for bringing this to light.

memphisj said...

Another question I have, is it known just what the CA or FedEx received for this"sponsorship"? From the story its clear that favorable coverage was quid pro quo, since the reporter and editor were called on carpet when that wasn't forthcoming. Was the travel provided for, ad space guaranteed? Or was the favorable coverage payment enough?

Anonymous said...

There's also the report from the Commercial Appeal that Bellevue Baptist Church is sponsoring coverage of their mission work in Africa. What has God wrought?

Anonymous said...

As the folks at the Press Scimitar put on a tshirt during a contract negotiation many moons ago:

"You can't be a beacon if your light doesn't shine."

Anonymous said...

Didn't any in an editors job at the paper take Journalism 1001?

Anonymous said...

I'm still working at the CA, and my only complaint about this blog is that it paints a too rosy picture of what's going on. No leadership and no ethics.

Anonymous said...

from what i heard, it didn't quite happen this way. supposedly, the deals were made behind the backs of the reporters -- and were made while they were halfway across the world assuming they were reporting real news. i think the whole sponsorship thing was a nasty shock to all involved, except, of course, peck.

memphisj said...

I think there still is confusion about this, I spoke with a reporter who also mentioned that nothing had been written yet when the dustup started. Either way its just as bad, I'm not sure the reporter or photographer knew how much of this was "sponsored", it would help if the CA and Peck gave a full accounting about the incident and actually took the muzzle off the reporter, probably not to happen.
Smartcity, how sure of your sourcing on the issue of a story being written and found not acceptable (not fawning) are you? One employee told me that flat out no one was sent home, but they may not know the full story either......

Smart City Consulting said...

It's our understanding that the policy about the sponsorship of the series was posted on the bulletin board, so it's hard to see how it was such a secret.

No place on earth is more prone to gossip than a newsroom, but what we posted is what we have heard from several people.

Anonymous said...

i don't know much about journalism or reporting. i do know business, the owner of the CA has recently split into two companies profitable (interactive media) and unprofitable (newspapers). corporations only spin of unprofitable units to sell them to someone that can make it profitable or to put it under a microscope and make the business profitable themselves. either scenario equals a change for the way the CA does business.
the pressure for editors in the daily newspapers must be incredible, you have this out of date business model and the pressure from wall street to increase earnings. advertising dollars, the newspaper primary source of revenues, are shrinking every year circulation is declining faster than advertising dollars and to top it off competition has increased from other media. how is an editor to make money for the CA under all these circumstances? the question of ethics is valid i suppose. the editor could do something ethical like cut overhead and still be villified. what's an editor to do?

Anonymous said...

i'm told that the newspaper guild also played a significant role in the resolution of this dispute... anybody know about that? i know from personal experience if the guild didn't exist, the ca would be hell on earth.

Anonymous said...

It's not so much about "profitability", since as John Branston reported, the newspaper division made a 26% profit last year. It's about how BIG a profit will satisfy Wall Street. The model for newspapers going forward is not going be "monetizing content", but creating provocative, well-crafted LOCAL content that becomes a must-read for the community. Yes, this will require painful downsizing in the short term, and probably free distributiion, but the road to survivability is NOT to become another RSVP sellout rag or a happy-face suburban piece of crap. It's creating quality journalism and an environment where advertisers know the product is credible, thereby making their ads credible.

Smart City Consulting said...

Since two of us here were once Guild members, we have no doubts about the value of those dues about now.

Anonymous said...

You're right about the guild. Morale at the CA is in the toilet, and if it weren't for the guild, we'd already have been flushed down the drain.

Anonymous said...

This has to be the most unbelievable story I've ever read. We are all accostomed to the idea that newspapers take advertisements for "sponsorship" of stories, but the deal has been that advertisers have no say over what the newsroom copy says. If they don't like it, they don't have to adverise. To do anything that erodes this understanding is suicide. Why should anyone trust anything they read in news columns if it is going to be directly "sponsored." And what about those stories that appear on advertising pages that say "advertisement" over the copy. Why bother with such cautions if you are going to sell your newspaper's heritage this way. This is so disgraceful that I don't see how Peck can survive.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget, Joe Pepe is Chris Peck's boss. Pepe probably forced Peck to do this. What could Peck do, other than resign in protest?

Anonymous said...

If an editor is in a position where he has no more influence or power than to be a pawn for the business office, it's time to send out the resume. It's hard to imagine that Peck finds himself in a difficulty where he has so little voice over editorial policy that his options are acquiesce or resign.

Kerry said...

While I find the CA's news sponsorship idea utterly abhorrent (anybody read Naomi Klein's "No Logo"? Anyone?) I'll play devil's advocate long enough to point out that Peck was reacting to very real pressures to keep his enterprise profitable. As much as we may righteously harrumph and call for his resignation, it's unlikely he'll find a market of any size with a daily paper that's not facing the same situation... and coming up with similar "solutions."

That said, this is but one more nail in the coffin of the CA's credibility and quality as a media outlet.

On a related note, did anybody see the immense amount of hand wringing that erupted in Chicago earlier this year when the Chicago Tribune decided to sell paid advertising on its front page? Were we ever so innocent?

Thanks for an excellent post Tom. Looks like you could be our new Richard Thompson!

Anonymous said...

Nothing was posted on any bulletin board ... the guild took no official initiative and the signatures on the petition (more than has been reported) came from members and nonmembers alike ... stop piling on Peck and start asking why so many of the issues this blog rightly highlights get so little coverage and then read your morning paper and note how many stories are written about community "news" in the burbs (news being, you know, 5ks and ribbon cuttings and tree plantings). Pepe ordered reporters out of the city and into the 'burbs and you can expect even fewer reporters covering the city in the very near future.

What's the old political saying about getting the leaders you deserve? Memphians fleeing the city and not engaging with the news are getting newspaper they deserve.

On profits, come on. Scripps pulled 40-percent plus profit margins for many years before the recent collapse of classifieds across the newspaper sector. Still pulling 27 percent. And CA has long been considered one of the top performers, so it's margin is likely 10 points higher.

Anonymous said...

Kudos to Chris Peck, who has certainly earned the Adolph Hitler "Good German" award for loyally following orders from Scripps HQ henchmen to be creative in finding more revenues.
The FedEx idea barely scratches the surface. My suggestions:
Get defense lawyers to cough up big bucks for puff pieces on their clients arrested as pedophiles.
Hit up local politicians to gloss over those embarrassing extramarital relationships in their election-year profiles.
Get Chiquita Bananas to fund a seven-part investigative project, "Bananas, the Unacknowledged Cancer Cure." With an extra revenue contribution, Chiquita could buy a 10-part prize-winner: "Bananas, the New Viagra?"
Charge candidates promoted in editorials for their CA backing.
Charge readers exorbitant fees for delivering this advertising tripe to Memphis doorsteps every morning....Oops, I forgot, they are already doing that.

Anonymous said...

David Wayne Brown must be rolling over in his grave at what is happening at his newspaper.

Anonymous said...

Forward the FLYER!

Anonymous said...

um, isn't david still alive? mike grehl and lionel linder are probably spinning in their graves...

Anonymous said...

Heads up: suits on a warpath at Union Avenue this morning over all this negative publicity. Haven't seen as much activity in the front offices for years. Great fun.

Anonymous said...

ME Scott Sines comes down on your blog and claims an allegiance to journalism principles. There's a big difference between talking about it and actually encouraging it. Ask anyone who works here. We know there's a line we better not cross and it's the one that makes an advertiser unhappy.

Anonymous said...

why don't you folks scream when stories run about newspaper and tv reporters giving loads of cash to the political campaigns of Democrats? I think the last reported ratio was 50 to 1 Dem to Repub?

You lose credibility when you pick and choose what you consider "unethical".

Unbiased journalism is contradictory to human nature. That's why people laugh at the CA, network news, etc.

Anonymous said...

Betcha "the item" spinning, too.

Anonymous said...

I just read the CA's monetizing content memo, and realize there is something really big missing from it: me.
Nowhere in this document is there any reference to reader preferences, or what sort of news content that readers like me want to receive. Hey, pay attention up there: I don't want manicured news, I don't want manufactured news, and I don't want manicaled news. Why didn't I read about this agreement between the editorial and advertisement departments in the CA first?

Smart City Consulting said...

We are pleased to report that David Wayne Brown, former editor of The Commercial Appeal, is alive and well. He is highly successful partner of Conaway Brown, marketing and advertising.

Anonymous said...

DWB still might be spinning, however...

Anonymous said...

....Screwing, not spinning. Item, too.

Anonymous said...

While I don't defend the concept of monetizing content...not much more can be said for the fabrication/exaggeration of "facts" Smart City is reporting on this story.

Modern Journalism 101: Sponsorships belong on race cars and golf bags not news content, and just because a blog is independent doesn't mean it shouldn't care about accuracy.

Anonymous said...

I don't know when I've had so much fun watching the CA's cycle of attack, denial and capitulation. It's neough to make the Bush White House proud.

Smart City Consulting said...

anonymous6:48:

We thought we made it pretty clear that we were reporting what was being widely said within the newsroom of the CA. We're just lowly bloggers here, not reporters although we strive to be accurate of course. We wish we had the time and the resources that reporters have, but we decided to comment on this precisely because it was becoming such a hot topic inside the paper. The purpose of our post was the selling of news stories, and that does now seem to be front and center, and to us, that's good news for sure.

Smart City Consulting said...

PS: That's not to say that if the CA will give us access to interview all the people who are involved in this episode, we'd jump at the chance and report back.

Anonymous said...

to think there was so much optimism when peck was hired ...

"community news" and the division of the newsroom between "spokies"/everyone else drove away many talented journalists.

bad blood aside, it comes down to this: if your plan as a leader is successful, you don't have to lay off oodles of people.

amber's army isn't riding to the rescue -- it's time to show the editor the same door that's been shown to so many others.

beenthere said...

I, too, am a former newsroom staffer at the CA. For many years, I was proud to be there, but that's when editors knew about news, as does Otis Sanford, the runner-up when Peck, journalism's highest form of weasel, was chosen. Sanford has more integrity and intelligence in his baby finger than Peck does in his weaselly body. Peck cares nothing about news or the people who report it. He's utterly clueless to what Memphis readers really want and I can't believe that even the gnarly Scripps bigwigs don't see that. Peck alone is responsible for many high quality folks' departures, including mine. I'll give him credit only for single-handedly destroying that newspaper's credibility to the point where it can't be restored.

memphisstrivingreaders said...

I started reading from the first issue and bought from the third. I was wondering what happened as I haven't been able to find it in the book shop for ages. Sigh. It was THE BEST gaming memphisstrivingreaders along with Mean Machines from England. A part of my youth died today finding this news! I just read online now that the mag might be coming back on Dec. 1st.

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