Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Death of journalism goes mainstream

I'm stumbling across this disturbing bit of new a little bit later than other folks (although not many seem to have talked about it, so maybe nobody cares) but it strikes me as a serious development in the world of journalism: the newsroom at the Dallas Morning News now answers to the advertising department.
Anyone who thinks advertising will influence news copy is "so far off-base. That's not going to happen at all," said Rich Alfano by phone. Alfano starts Monday as a general manager at the Morning News. His responsibilities include the sports department, as well as health care and education.

That's very reassuring and all, except for the fact that it's a bald-faced lie. Look, I worked in this environment for the year I spent with Prime Time Newspapers in San Antonio. I, too, was assured of editorial independence and the non-interference of advertising and promised puppies and bunnies and my very own DVD of "All The President's Men." The reality was very much different. From day one, advertising sent me a steady stream of story "assignments." Part of my mandate was to increase circulation of my two magazines, which--call me crazy--meant producing dynamic, interesting stories, but my initiative normally earned not kudos, but complaints from advertising folks because I hadn't "cleared it with them" first. Advertising regularly made editorial changes without my knowledge, deleting sources and quotes if that particular person/business hadn't bought a prerequisite amount of ad space. And--forgive the appearance of hyperbole for this next bit--but I felt very much like a prostitute (or what I imagine some prostitutes must feel like) whenever I was required to write a positive, ad-driven feature article on some topic or business that appeared little more than quackery to my eye. Any type of counterbalancing view was, of course, forbidden inclusion in the article, lest our advertisers complain.

Why didn't I simply resign rather than whore myself and allow any sense of journalistic integrity to be trampled? Simple: I had a family to feed, and the economy was sour. Job prospects were few and far between. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet, no matter how soul-numbing it becomes.

I found an interesting section deeper in the article:
Who decides conflicts between advertisers and journalists? Whose values prevail?

Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at Poynter, said the editor-publisher relationship works well "when you have two people who are respectful and understand the other's responsibilities and (who) listen well."

"I'd be looking for training for both the section editors and the general managers," McBride told me by phone. "The section editors will need to understand more about how the business side works. And business people will need to understand the principles of independent journalism."

This sounds good on the surface. But in my direct experience, the ad reps and business managers have no journalism background, and what's more, they have zero interest in learning anything about editorial. I can't count how many times I've heard "Advertising drives this train. Without ads, there wouldn't be a paper for your stories." Well, yeah. But without editorial content, your paper is the Thrifty Nickle or, in this cyber age, Craig's List. Last time I checked, they didn't award Pulitzers for "Ad Rep of the Year." I clearly recall the few times I tried to explain some editorial decision to an impatient ad rep, they listened in a sincere, earnest manner then promptly asked when I could make the changes they wanted in such a manner that made it clear to me they hadn't actually heard a thing I'd said.

The difference, now, is that 50,000 circulation monthlies and 25,000 circulation dailies are bush league compared to the Dallas Morning News. But I guess that's no longer true. The Dallas Morning News is now bush league as well. How long before the Washington Post and New York Times follow?

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1 comment:

  1. The Houston Chronicle is now running sports and entertainment stories on the front page. It's over for newspapers as we knew them.