Thursday, October 18, 2007

Following Up "All The News That's Fit To Rent"

There’s an old saying in the newspaper business that no one is worse at communicating than the ones in the business.

That seems to be the case with the internal controversy at The Commercial Appeal about selling news sponsorships, or “monetizing the content,” in the unfortunate phrasing of management there.

In the absence of any dependable communication with the news staff about what was going on with this issue, multiple stories swirled at the CA as reporters were left to interpret smoke signals and to put two and two together, and what came from reporters as a result is what led to our post. This communication gap isn’t confined to this particular issue; it is the nature of the beast.

Yesterday’s post here was based on a prevalent story being circulated at The Commercial Appeal about selling news sponsorships, and we are pleased that management is belatedly trying to get the facts out to its own reporters and hopefully, they’ll do the same with the public. In an email circulated by Managing Editor Scott Sines, he says our post is "riddled with errors and should be corrected."

As we said in the post, it’s the policy that’s troubling, and in an email from Mr. Sines circulated at the CA, he seems to acknowledge as much, saying that “in the case of the Memphis and the World project, we ran up to the edge of making a mistake.”

He then emphasizes that the integrity of editorial copy remains unaffected by the CA’s successful efforts to sell everything from the 50th Anniversary of Stax and Elvis Week to prep football coverage. However, he failed to explain or elaborate on the facts surrounding how the newspaper “ran up to the edge of making a mistake.”

Again, to our point, this notion of monetizing the copy does by its very nature lower the firewall between editorial and advertising and does it to the point that most of the reporters at The Commercial Appeal are disturbed by the direction being taken.

In falling back to the political tactic of arguing about a specific fact to avoid the discussion about the larger issue at question, The Commercial Appeal does it readers a disservice, because all of us deserve to understand how far the newspaper will go in seeking revenues, and as this recent miscue indicates, how fragile journalistic objectivity can be in this situation.

In today’s memo, Mr. Sines says that editors at The Commercial Appeal “do not tell reporters to back off stories.” That’s good news, but it’s not consistent with what some reporters on his staff feel, because whether they like it or not, there is an unspoken pressure not to offend a sponsoring company and the strictly human impulse to keep your business sponsor happy.

As we do with any reader, we welcome a commentary by The Commercial Appeal that we can post on this blog. In the meantime, we hope that if nothing else, this issue and the internal firestorm that it’s created at our newspaper will sensitize editors even more about the public trust that is entrusted to them and the importance of communicating effectively to their own reporters so that even the appearance of a conflict, a standard the newspaper advocates for almost every one else it covers, is removed.

But, back to our post, the sad state of the morale at the newspaper and the frustration in the newsroom are important to us as readers, because they often stem from management decisions that do in fact affect the quality and the content of the news we read. For that reason, the post is part of a larger discussion that is taking place already in this city and deservedly so.

Meanwhile, as Mr. Sines writes, “We are in the process of finalizing company guidelines for monetizing content at the newspaper.” We await them, understanding that there is policy and then there is reality.


city watch said...

Dear Smart:

Another conflict of interest:

Geoff Calkins' writings have been critical of President Raines and R.C. Johnson at the University of Memphis regarding the on-campus stadium issue. Harold Byrd, part owner of the Bank of Bartlett has also been a critic of the University's admisistration.

Harold Byrd has been given voice to air his criticisms on the Geoff Calkins radio show, which he co-hosts with George Lapides. The Bank of Bartlett is a prime sponsor of the Calkins/Lapides radio show.

Isn't there a conflict of interest somewhere here?

Anonymous said...

Don't be bullied about this. You're right on about the big issue. I'm sending this from a restaurant because management is so paranoid and mad that we expect them to start checking every one's computers.

Anonymous said...

anonymous 11:59 a.m. has every right to be concerned...when i worked there, they routinely tapped into the email flow and were known to eavesdrop on telephone conversations if they were suspicious of someone.

most of the upper management is more concerned with self-preservation than serving any greater good despite all their blather about "saving journalism for the 21st century."

Anonymous said...

Ain't it always amazing how thin skinned editors are considering how much they like to dish it out.

Smart City Consulting said...

Mr. Sines: We have received your voice mail, but we have not received an email from you that we can find. We received one this morning from another source, but if you will officially send it, we'll post it.

Anonymous said...

How is this CA "monetizing the content" idea different from taking a bribe from an advertiser to run a favorable story? They call it monetizing, but it sure looks like bribery to me. Let's say I'm store X, and I'm having a Christmas sale on Toy Y and buy an ad with the CA. But hey, I would really appreciate it if the CA's reporters also wrote a story about how wonderful Toy Y is, how it's kicking up a new trend on schoolyards in Boston and Seattle where it first appeared, and how store X is offering it at firesale prices for the next week. The news department isn't going to write this story, so I bribe the newspaper to make sure it's written. Of course, Store X expects a news story of the highest quality (wink wink) for its money, and everyone involved in this process understands that ethical standards are kept.
Everyone that is except the reader, who outrageously isn't mentioned at all in the CA's "monetizing content" memo. Perhaps the CA believes readers won't care if bribery is used to color the news they receive.
SO why isn't this bribing reporters to write stories? Or am I just plain dumb and stupid?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 12:32:

You are not stupid. You are on track. It would in effect be bribery, and what's worse, the reporter would not benefit except in the sense that he/she gets to keep his/her job. They wouldn't see any of the money -- they haven't had a raise in 3-4 years and only piddling ones prior to that.

I became outraged after the CA went to the "citizen journalist" philosphy. I'm supposed to pay a subscription to get the paper and then help them write it? Gimme a break!

I don't get the CA anymore. And I don't subscribe to it, either. I get my news from the Flyer and the New York Times.

Anonymous said...

Questions for Sines:
1. Would the CA have ignored Elvis Week if some secret "monetizing the content" deal wasn't involved.
2. How much money did the CA receive for covering this event, and was this disclosed in the stories the CA wrote about this event.
3. What exactly was the deal between the editorial department and advertising involving Elvis Week coverage? Was there any agreement to suppress news reports on mugging and crime at Elvis Week activities?

memphisj said...

Yes, about that Elvis week thing, I never saw it because I seldom pick up the paper any more, but didn't editorial employees essentially produce ad content in that section? Following around that Elvis impersonator and all that? How is that not breaking down the wall between editorial and advertising?

bob said...

Don't you back off, SCM.

Anyone who reads Pecks'a actual memo (go to the Memphius Flyer site, branston's article) would be more than disturbed. They would be puking in their morning cereal.

Anonymous said...

Elvis week was a faux story?

Anonymous said...

Ah, ha. Someone has to pay the CA to write all these Elvis stories. The scales of years are falling away from my eyes

Anonymous said...

The suits can't control this one, because it's attracting too much heat in industry organs. Look for a mea culpa soon.

Anonymous said...

Every one should be careful with their emails. I hear they're going to check our computers again.

Anonymous said...

I think I am about to cancel my CA subscription.

Anonymous said...

it seems most people are hung on the phrase "monetizing content" this is a corporate buzzword. the buzzword is heard on analyst calls with companies like google, yahoo, msnbc and cnbc. i do not think that monetizing content is bad on its face, in fact, if used correctly could be the subsidy that saves newspapers.

what if fed ex had sponsored a six-part series on new urbanism, distribution center economics or aerotropolis cities and the direction memphis needs to go to pursue economic development? would that cause the same outrage? in essence, it would be the same corporations sponsoring journalism. i think most have the problem that, in this case, "monetizing content" meant writing a story that favored the corporate sponsor. i think its important to seperate the concept from the individual act of lack of judgement by the editor.