Newspapers Turning Into A Glorified "Greensheet"

UPDATE (Dec 4): A Dallas Morning News employee, depressed at the prospect of news editors now answering to the paper's ad sales people, files the following anonymous newsroom dispatch with the blog of the monthly D Magazine (not affiliated with the paper):

Everybody is disgruntled, to put it mildly, over the newsroom reorganization making editors answerable to ad sales people. It sucks. How could you not hate it? The problem is that a lot of us sit around complaining how bad everything is, but nobody has an idea about how we can save the newspaper. Personally, I think this is a bad idea, but if you ask me to come up with a better one, I can't, and I doubt any of my colleagues can, either. ..It's not like any of us can point to a newspaper somewhere else and say, "Look, they're doing it right -- let's copy that strategy!" My guess is that the {new rules} will convince more writers and editors to get their resumes out there, because they're not going to want to work in that kind of journalism environment. I get this, but we shouldn't have any illusions about the situation that the newspaper industry is in. We're at the brink. Newspapers that want to survive are going to have to start doing things they never imagined they'd be doing in healthier times. Don't get me wrong, I hate this new strategy. But I prefer doing something bold to sitting back and doing the same old thing, and hoping that things will get better if we just sit tight.

Original Entry:

A firmly established tenet of journalism is that reporters and editors don't share revenue or have a business relationship with the subject they're writing about. Readers must share this belief, too, in order to trust the reporting.

The A.H. Belo corporation, which publishes several daily newspapers across the country, including its flagship Dallas Morning News, is tossing this cardinal rule in the trash.

First, some modern background: In October, 1999, the Los Angeles Times published a 168-page supplement to its Sunday magazine touting the glistening new Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Lakers. Reporters and editors working on the supplement were purposely not told that the paper -- their employer -- was quietly splitting the $2 million in advertising revenue from the supplement with Staples Center ownership.

When word of this unethical commingling between the journalism and business sides of the paper became public, the Times' publisher wiped the egg off her face and apologized to both staff and readers, promising that it wouldn't happen again.

Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, defined the breach to PBS's NewsHour: "It was a case of going a step further than other papers have done. Supplements are always filled with puff pieces about {whatever} industry, and advertisers are invited to advertise. But this is the first time that I know of, and has been publicized, in which the paper invited advertisers and said, 'Let's split the profits on this whole thing.' "

That was ten years ago. Today, there'd be no apology and no egg.

A. H. Belo has just announced, in an internal memo, that some "section editors" (news editors) at all of the company's papers will now report directly to the corporate team of "sales managers." These sales people will even get a new title, "general managers," in order to remove the word "sales." Think about that.

As Robert Wolinsky of the weekly Dallas Observer bluntly put it, "In short, those who sell ads for A.H. Belo's products will now dictate content within A.H. Belo's products."

It's one thing to have a viewpoint and openly acknowledge it. That's what editorials are for. When you read a regular news story, however (either hard copy or online), you'd like to think it was generated in a straight-up, news-gathering and reporting manner, regardless of the toes it steps on.

If a reporter doing a story on, say, price-fixing by grocery stores has to run their work by the paper's sales manager whose job it is to generate ad revenue from grocery stores, the whole exercise is tainted.

I don't know what it's called at that point, but it damn sure isn't journalism.

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