After the Wall
Communication between newspapers' editorial and business sides is far more prevalent than in the past. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
By Don Campbell
Don Campbell is a lecturer in journalism at Emory University and a former Washington reporter, editor and columnist.
LAST DECEMBER, every employee at Georgia's Columbus, Ledger-Enquirer, from Publisher John F. Greenman down to the janitor, got a $185 bonus in the form of a gift card from Dillard's department store. The bonuses represented 10 percent of the amount by which the Knight Ridder paper had exceeded its profit target for the year. Announcing the bonuses to employees in small strategy meetings, Greenman called them one more way to "pay for performance" at a company where compensation is increasingly linked to achievement.
When one manager asked why the staffers didn't get Wal-Mart gift cards instead, Greenman replied: "We like to do business with people who do business with us."
Neither the size of the bonus nor the reference to performance--nor the allegiance to Dillard's, a major advertiser--surprised many employees at the Ledger-Enquirer. Because journalists and business staff alike in Columbus know practically everything there is to know about the bottom line.
Under Greenman, a former managing editor for administration and vice president of circulation at the Akron Beacon Journal, staffers not only are taught the "business model," they are treated to a steady diet of numbers by way of in-house newsletters and quarterly briefings: advertising revenues compared to budget projections, weekly circulation numbers compared to a year ago, household penetration, profit margins--even the price of newsprint.
The heavy focus on financial numbers "means we're all responsible for our own destiny," says Ledger-Enquirer Executive Editor Mike Burbach.
But is the bottom-line talk a source of discontent in the newsroom? Are there nicknames for Greenman that portray him as a money-grubbing lackey for Knight Ridder and Wall Street?
To the contrary, interviews turn up decidedly favorable comments from reporters and editors. Some say he's the first publisher they've known who makes almost daily trips to the newsroom and seems to have no secrets. Some may grumble privately about having to make time for the mandatory financial briefings, but they appreciate being given so much inside information.
"As a young woman, I didn't care about the business side of the paper," says Business Editor Sharony Green. "But I'm recently divorced... . I'm over 30. The grace period is over. I have to think about my security."
"We really feel better as part of the company," says government reporter Jim Houston, who has worked at the Ledger-Enquirer for 28 years--long enough to remember when the family that used to own the paper doled out Christmas hams, but no financial information. "Some of the worst cynics in the country are in newsrooms, but the ones here feel better about the company they work for."
All the talk about business literacy has tended to focus on what news folks should learn about business, says Burbach, "but the key is to tell everyone. The walls [between the newsroom and business side] had their function. They made us not have to think about some things. Now we have to think."
It's interesting that a newspaper publisher in Columbus can preach openness and business literacy and win staff praise, and another, in Los Angeles, can do much the same thing and draw criticism. Could the Ledger-Enquirer be a good place to look when searching for lessons from the controversy at the Los Angeles Times over the Staples affair--the sharing of revenues with the subject of a special edition of the newspaper's Sunday magazine? (See "Down and Out in L.A.," January/February.)
Comparing the Times with the Ledger-Enquirer is like comparing the QE2 with a rowboat--the Times has nearly 20 times the staff and circulation and operates in a vastly more complicated market. But they do navigate under the same time-honored rules. (The rowboat crew in Columbus also had the same reaction to the L.A. debacle as everybody else. "I guess they don't have alarm bells out there," drawls Houston. "I don't think that kind of thing would happen here.")
The environment in Columbus and in scores of other newsrooms does suggest that one focus of the L.A. controversy, the vaunted "wall" separating editorial and business, is a myth, or an ill-chosen metaphor at best. These days, the wall more often resembles a screen door with double hinges and no latch. A lot of the talk about it is a semantic jumble of apples and oranges.
But that does not mean the sometimes-fuzzy philosophical line that protects editorial integrity at most newspapers is in shreds. And because that distinction is at the core of modern journalism values, the Times controversy was regarded by some publishers and editors as a blessing in disguise, even if it did revive debates already settled in some newsrooms.
"They have done a good thing for journalism by bringing the focus back on this issue," says Fresno Bee Publisher Keith Moyer. "It's still our credibility we trade on. If you think otherwise, you're wrong. I guess we had to sink to this to realize that."
Newspaper executives displayed a good dose of smugness when talking about the Staples deal; dozens of interviews found no one who considered the unorthodox arrangement likely to happen in their newsroom--or to be acceptable. But many were simultaneously shaking their heads and making mental notes for the next time an underling begins a conversation by saying, "You're not going to believe this, but...."
The smart ones, moreover, have begun reviewing how they handle such issues as ethics code language and the proper labeling of newspaper content that is produced by advertising staffs. Still others have taken the travails of Times Publisher Kathryn M. Downing as further evidence of the need to train executives on both sides of the mythical wall to understand and speak the language of the other. (See "Bridging the Culture Gap," page 57.)
Language, in fact, is seen by some as the Achilles' heel of Times Mirror Chairman and CEO Mark H. Willes, who shook the Times newsroom out of its complacency after he named himself publisher in 1997 and then appointed Downing to succeed him.
Willes' quick decision to shut down New York Newsday in 1995 and to reduce staffs elsewhere automatically made him a pariah in journalism circles. His talk of using a "bazooka" to knock down the wall between the business side and the newsroom cemented his image as a slash-and-burner.
So maybe the language issue is germane. What if, instead, Willes had said something like: "This is a communications company, folks, on the brink of the 21st century. Why shouldn't I expect people who work here to communicate?"
Or, if instead of talking about having general managers ensure that newspaper sections "pay their own way," he'd invoked some of the other popular "C" words--collaboration, creativity, cooperation, coordination (not to mention such overused buzzwords and catchphrases as synergy, new paradigms and partnering)? Either way, he wouldn't have sounded that different from some newspaper executives held in high esteem.
IN 1898, AN hour and a half east of L.A., the revered late Knight Ridder President James K. Batten delivered the annual Riverside Lecture and said some things that, coming out of Willes' mouth six years later, probably would have been dismissed as heresy.
Batten talked about how, when he was a young reporter at the Charlotte Observer in the 1950s and 1960s, it never occurred to him to feel any concern about the financial health of his newspaper--or about its acceptance in the marketplace.
"My newsroom friends and I knew that was all foreordained--we prided ourselves on our ability to tell our critics to go to hell," Batten said. "We were, after all, Œthe press,' beholden to no one."
But, Batten added: "The days when we could do newspapering our way, and tell the world to go to hell if it didn't like the results, are gone forever.... The time has come for newspaper people to become less product-driven, and more reader-driven, customer-driven, looking much more outward and less complacently inward."
More than 10 years later, Poynter Institute President Jim Naughton, who spent much of his career as a respected senior editor at Knight Ridder's Philadelphia Inquirer, makes a similar point. "We as journalists have a sort of protective crouch that we go into with the First Amendment," says Naughton, "and we've overdone that. We need to separate out our principles from those on the business side and find out where do our principles really collide. If we can accomplish that, we'll get to a shared purpose."
That really is the heart of the matter. Few people in journalism seriously question what Louis W. Hodges, the Knight Professor of Ethics in Journalism at Washington and Lee University, calls "the moral premise," which is that "newspapers are radically different from most businesses because the future of democracy depends on an unencumbered free press."
The questions are much less philosophical than that: Are profit pressures from Wall Street, where too much seemingly is never enough, prompting newspapers to cut corners to keep market share of advertising dollars? Are editors looking the other way? For that matter, what happens when the next recession arrives, and advertising budgets begin shrinking like ice cubes under a blazing sun?
The view that corporatism is the devil here, and that a declining number of reporters and editors are fighting a lonely battle to protect the integrity of journalism, resonates in some newsrooms but not in many other places. For starters, publishers at group newspapers will tell you that being part of a large corporation actually helps protect them from advertiser pressures. (Publishers at privately owned papers, not surprisingly, counter that they have the option of operating under lower profit goals.) Then there's the fact that independently owned newspapers are a vanishing breed.
The public-private argument suggests a false choice of profits or principle. Jay T. Harris, a former columnist and editor who is now publisher of Knight Ridder's San Jose Mercury News, says you can have both. "It is really important to grow the business," Harris says. "But it's got to be in ways consistent with newspaper traditions and our reputation, and I believe that's doable."
But whether publicly or privately owned, sound business practices at many newspapers these days mean that news and business staffs cooperate and collaborate on virtually every initiative that rises above the level of daily humdrum. Cross-departmental marketing committees are becoming common, as are newsroom liaisons from the advertising and circulation departments.
There is a growing belief, in fact, that editors who don't insist on being "at the table" when business decisions are made will be outmaneuvered and left to explain decisions they might have prevented. That accounts for the view by some executives that the biggest problem at the Times was not that Mark Willes had blasted the wall to smithereens, but that too much of the wall was left standing.
DALLAS MORNING NEWS President and General Manager Bob Mong meets almost every morning with the top editor, the top advertising executive and other department heads. "We share just about everything," says Mong. "Here, our top editor would know what's going on. These kinds of meetings didn't exist five years ago in Dallas. We cooperate a lot on special sections, deciding who will do them, which will be advertorials, etcetera."
"I think there's more conversation here [than in L.A.]," says Tim McGuire, editor of Minneapolis' Star Tribune. "It's essential that there be conversation. It's crucial that editors be at the table and are constantly educating people on what's right."
At the Star Tribune, he says, there's a liaison from the advertising department to the newsroom. "She has the authority to stop things on the spot, such as when someone recently suggested an ad on the front page. She said, ŒI'm not even going to take that up to the newsroom. They'll hurt me.' "
The liaison's post, McGuire says, "grew out of the belief that everything needs to be coordinated." When the Star Tribune set out to revise four sections last year, the liaison headed an interdepartmental committee that enabled her to work with production, circulation, advertising and newsroom representatives to make sure the joint effort went smoothly. Early this year, she was coordinating newspaper-wide efforts on coverage of the Super Bowl. "She's basically a convener," McGuire says.
One who survived the firestorm at the L.A. Times, Executive Sports Editor Rick Jaffe, says that working with the business side has simply become a reality for editors. Jaffe, who left the Times in 1987, returned in 1995 to find that "we had gone from having all the space we wanted to not having enough space." The world had changed, he said, because of the competition for ad dollars and the push for higher profit margins.
"You have to try to be creative with your section," he says. "To me, it's not a concern with how much money we're making. It's how to make the sports section better. It's not a reality anymore to have all the space you want unless you can come up with something that's good for readers and that advertisers can sell into."
Jaffe says that under the Willes regime, he exchanged information every day with the general manager for sports. "He was the go-between, so that I didn't have to deal with the advertising department," Jaffe says. "So it was helpful to me. He'd attend our weekly planning meeting. I felt he knew what editorial independence meant. I never felt any pressure. When they wanted to try an island ad [an ad in the middle of a page surrounded by stories] on a sports page, we told them it wouldn't work, and we didn't hear anymore about it."
"It's a real transitional time we're in," agrees Timothy Dwyer, sports editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I'm a big believer in the Œwall,' but I also want us to survive. We've got to do things that raise revenues. We don't have to go down the Yellow Brick Road together, but we need to be more sensitive to each other's needs. It's OK to have the wall there, but we don't have to put our heads in the sand on each side of the wall."
"I don't believe you have to compromise your ethics to survive in the new media environment," says former newspaper editor and NBC News President Michael Gartner. "You may have to be a better marketer. You may have to understand technology better, but you certainly don't have to compromise your ethics."
At the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, former Editor and now Publisher Diane McFarlin says she has a marketing director and an executive editor who are "very strong leaders. They're not afraid of having a conversation; it's a healthy environment." According to McFarlin, the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group, of which the Herald-Tribune is a member, is considering holding joint retreats of editors and circulation directors. The same could be done with advertising, she says.
At Arkansas' Pine Bluff Commercial, a Donrey Media Group paper, Publisher Charles A. Berry says "there's more cooperation among departments than there used to be. One of my primary rules is that we work together. But I don't feel we've crossed any ethical barrier. We have to put out more attractive sections now to get advertisers. And, yes, editors need to know more about what others do. Advertising people do get exposure to arguments about editorial independence."
There's a general assumption that advertising pressures are greater on small dailies than at papers in large markets.
Monte I. Trammer, former longtime publisher of the 12,000-circulation Saratoga Springs, New York, Saratogian, says advertisers do think they have more clout with community newspapers--"but that doesn't mean they do." Trammer, now publisher of the Elmira, New York, Star-Gazette, says, "You hear this phrase a lot: ŒYou're a community newspaper,' or, "We think of you as our newspaper.' Their notion is that because you're closer to the people--and to advertisers--you'll be more likely to join them in what they see as the community's good. They think, ŒThe local newspaper owes me.'
"When you're new in town as a publisher, you get those kinds of requests early on. But I always say to them, ŒAll we've got going for us is our credibility. If we write something to please advertisers, we've trashed the franchise."
Says Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal Publisher Sara Bentley: "In fact, I used to get more of it--hold a story, etcetera. I don't tend to get [such requests] anymore. It's more subtle now, like, ŒYou need to protect your community instead of your staff... .' I hope people are more sophisticated now."
In Columbus, Publisher Greenman says, "The guiding rule here is, Œdisclose.' Our editor has all the power he needs to stop ideas that threaten editorial integrity. I just don't see anyone putting pressure on the integrity of the product."
"The kinds of demands and expectations by advertisers haven't changed much, but they're still an issue," says Publisher Scott Campbell at the Vancouver, Washington, Columbian. "I can understand, but not accept, the view that you have to listen to advertisers more these days... . They do have more places to go."
"If the culture at your newspaper is right, you can have all kinds of conversations and get the right results," says Tribune Publishing Co. President Jack Fuller. "If enough people are involved, somebody will say, ŒWait a minute, this is not right.' If your culture is wrong, you won't get the right results no matter how many conversations you have. Internal openness is valuable. If you have enough debate, the dumbest things don't happen."
IT'S WELL DOCUMENTED that what's happened to newspapers over the past 25 years has put a premium on doing whatever it takes--short of compromising principle, of course--to hold on to readers. With circulation flat or declining in many markets, with new competition from television, direct mail and the Internet, editors and publishers have turned more and more to market research to figure out what readers want, and what image, or "brand," their newspaper should project. (See "What Do Readers Really Want?" March 1999.) Because if they can't hold readers, they can't hold advertisers. Old-timers and purists consider this pandering, but it's a fact of life.
The assumption that consequently there are more pressures from advertisers than there used to be nags editors, particularly because of a report released in December 1998 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors' Journalism Credibility Project. A survey conducted as part of the project found that half the public thought that advertisers influence news decisions at daily newspapers.
When asked about that, editors and publishers alike said they were disappointed and offended--but didn't know what to do about it. Because even though an occasional anecdote gives credence to the finding--like the Chicago Sun-Times editor who ordered reporters to quote only advertisers in business stories--most executives say they have no trouble standing up to the pressures.
"We say to advertisers, ŒWe don't sell you content; we sell you eyeballs--that's all you get from us,' " said Judith Roales in an interview shortly before she resigned in January as publisher of the independent St. Petersburg Times. "We occasionally have a few advertisers who try to huff and puff. We listen to them. We let them vent, and that's the end of it. Why screw with that formula?"
At Cox Newspapers, says President Jay Smith, "We tell advertisers, ŒYou're buying access to the best product we can make, but you won't be able to influence what we do or how we do it.' "
Advertisers do try to influence how newspapers act, of course, often as an act of retribution. Tales of advertiser boycotts, running the gamut from car dealers to restaurants to real estate brokers, can be found at almost any newspaper. In Seattle, a few years back, the locally headquartered retailer Nordstrom pulled its ads from the Seattle paper for almost a year after becoming angered at how the Times was covering the company's labor problems.
In Salem, Publisher Bentley recalls that Realtors yanked all their ads and started their own weekly newspaper after the Statesman Journal ran a syndicated column advising home sellers to negotiate brokers' fees. They gave up after discovering that running their own newspaper wasn't easy--and after being cited by the state attorney general for restraint of trade for telling a home seller that she couldn't advertise in the Statesman Journal.
Monte Trammer recalls the time in Saratoga Springs when a prominent hardware store owner pulled his ads for more than a year after the Saratogian ran a picture of a new house being built for him. The picture accompanied a story about how the economic downturn hadn't affected everyone the same. Trammer says the owner, whose store had a reputation for high prices but good service, feared the picture would anger his customers. "He said, ŒIf that photo runs, you'll not get another dime from us' in advertising dollars." The picture ran, and the paper lost thousands of dollars in revenue.
One of the most dramatic boycotts of recent times occurred nearly six years ago in San Jose. Car dealers yanked more than a million dollars' worth of ads after the Mercury News published a "guide" for car buyers on how to negotiate a better price. (See Free Press, September 1994.) Publisher Harris ended up publicly apologizing to the car dealers, and they resumed advertising in the Mercury News after the Federal Trade Commission accused them of staging an illegal boycott.
Dallas' Mong says if newspapers are straightforward with readers about dealing with advertisers, they'll be OK. "I worry that we could somehow be seen as not credible," he says. "On the other hand, newspapers need to be creative and collaborative and imaginative. Advertising staffs can be that way, and the two sides can coexist."
One area where newsroom standards are routinely tested is in publication of special sections. Few newspapers can thumb their noses at such sources of revenue, but numerous questions arise: Whose idea was it to begin with? Who will provide the editorial content? Who will dictate the layout and ad placements? And, at most papers, will this thing pay for itself? Also, will the average reader understand what it is? Are "advertorials" clearly labeled as advertising or specialty publications? Are the typeface and graphics clearly distinguishable from those used on news pages?
Most publishers favor news department control over special sections because that holds more appeal for advertisers--the theory that credibility sells.
In St. Petersburg, former Times Publisher Roales ran the numbers to make her point. In the past year, she says, the newspaper carried 36 special sections produced by the advertising and marketing departments and 44 special sections produced by the news department. The advertorials brought in $22,000 in revenues, on average, while the editorial special sections produced $50,000 on average.
"Good ethical news sells," she says, adding that her paper was doing fewer and fewer advertorials. Roales says she was in the enviable position of not having to ask whether a section would pay for itself. Instead, she says, the question was, "Will it serve the value of readers?"
The line that integrity sells newspapers, and that smart editors are perfectly capable of protecting that integrity, is the constant refrain of newspaper executives across the country.
"It's what we have to sell that others in communications don't," says David Fletcher, advertising director at the Ledger-Enquirer. "The better the paper is editorially, the more our cash registers ring."
"We sell credibility," echoes Sarasota's McFarlin. "Everybody recognizes that. It all boils down to the people involved.... There's no pressure here to do something that violates journalistic principles."
IT SOUNDS LIKE A win-win situation: Someone has an idea for a new column, a new page, a new section, a new forum. It's good for readers, good for consumers. The advertisers love it because it has the imprimatur of the newsroom--and thus will attract a wider audience. And it's good for the bottom line. So who can object to that? ###
No one, except that for journalists, it's not always that simple.
For example, special sections, even when produced in the newsroom, are sometimes filled with reader-friendly puffery surrounded by ads. Of course there's little point--and no advertiser appeal--in a special travel section about the Caribbean that tells readers why it's not a very attractive destination. On the other hand, shouldn't such sections include consumer information that might be contrary to advertisers' interests?
Jan Tuckwood, associate editor of the Palm Beach Post, supervises some 20 themed travel sections a year, including a cruise magazine each February. When asked if she'd include a story like one that appeared in the New York Times in December detailing the deplorable working conditions of some cruise-ship employees, she replied: "If people need to know, I'd put it in... . It would depend on the story. Special sections are generally more how-to than investigative." Like several other editors, she suggested that page one is usually a more appropriate place for investigative journalism.
Tuckwood says she can't think of a time in her career when she was ordered to take out or put something in a newspaper because of an advertiser. "But I'm a pragmatist," she adds. "If there are no advertisers interested in what I'm doing, that's a problem.... More ads give me more space."
Another gray area is the issue of quoting advertisers. Although edicts like the one at the Sun-Times in late 1997 are unusual, it's not uncommon for publishers or editors to suggest that news stories should include at least some advertisers in the mix of sources and mentions. (There's always the chance, editors say, that reporters will deliberately avoid talking to advertisers to demonstrate their independence.)
Tuckwood, in fact, says she made it a practice to include advertisers' names when she was fashion editor at the Denver Post in the 1980s. "If you're mentioning Liz Claiborne," she says, "why not mention as many stores as possible carrying her line? That's helping readers."
With the booming economy of recent years, the growing popularity of newspaper-sponsored investment conferences has generated another area of potential conflict.
Hank Klibanoff, business editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, has established a long list of ground rules for what has become a highly successful investing conference in his city. The key points are that business news staffers plan the conference agendas and decide on participants but have a third party invite speakers. Sponsors and advertisers get no special input or privileges.
Klibanoff takes obvious pleasure in noting that his staff twice wrote pieces critical of the locally based Vanguard Group just before conferences in which it was a top co-sponsor. "It made them very upset," Klibanoff says. "But there was never a suggestion that they'd pull out. The point is, we didn't hold back."
Klibanoff's approach raises the question, why not ground rules for everyone? Shouldn't newspaper ethics codes, which traditionally have focused on conflicts facing reporters and editors in gathering and presenting news, be broadened to cover the relationships of journalists with the business side and advertisers?
In the aftermath of the Staples controversy in L.A., the Times announced a set of principles that addresses the relationship, and backed it up with a memo to the staff from Publisher Downing and Editor Michael Parks outlining specific guidelines. The key sentence says flatly: "If the editorial mission and the commercial interests of the Times conflict, editorial integrity will always come first." Among the guidelines, one pledged that the Times would not engage in any deals with advertisers or other groups "that require or imply coverage or restrict it in any way."
Some of the most precise language on news-business relationships is included in the code of ethics adopted by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Besides calling for a "clear-cut delineation" between advertising and editorial matters, the SABEW code says that material produced by an editorial department or news service should be used in sections controlled by the editorial departments, and that sections controlled by advertising departments should be "distinctly different" from news sections in typeface, layout and design.
But a review of individual newspaper ethics codes compiled by ASNE finds few specific mentions of the editorial-advertising relationship. One, at the Dallas Morning News, says rather vaguely that "all staffers are encouraged to cooperate with and become familiar with operations in circulation, production, advertising and other departments." It adds that "any advertiser request for stories or photos should be routed through the managing editor's office to avoid any appearance or perception of pressure on this staff."
The Kansas City Star code directs staffers to "maintain a clear line between advertising and news." It also says, "We are especially inviting as targets of threats to remove advertising if we don't write positive stories. In cases of special sections produced by the editorial department, editors will exercise sole judgment over content."
As has often been the case in other ethics discussions, there's no consensus among editors and publishers about the need for written rules. "I, for one, like the idea of it," says Scott Campbell in Vancouver. "It's probably a good thing."
No, says Tim Kelly, publisher of the Lexington Herald-Leader and a former editor. "You can't write a code for the kind of relationship you're talking about here. It's a matter of exercising good judgment."
"It's clear to me what the standards at McClatchy are," says Charles Waters, executive editor of the newspaper company's Fresno Bee and a former editor at the Los Angeles Times magazine. "It doesn't have to be written on paper. We talk about it a lot.... If we do something wrong, I hope we'll step up and say it."
"A code could be helpful; maybe we do need to be that specific," says Sarasota's McFarlin, who adds that ethics should be discussed by everyone at the newspaper, not just those in the newsroom. "Here's my take," says Tuckwood in West Palm Beach. "We need higher ethical people and shorter ethics codes."