Bad Business: Editorial Integrity Of Newspapers Under Fire

newspaper underfireThe financial pressure on big newspapers is threatening to undermine their editorial integrity, with the business side, desperate to shore up collapsing revenues, exerting unwarranted control over newsroom operations.

Newspapers are for-profit businesses, and there has probably always been some dubious influence by business execs on editorial; for example, telling journalists to be less critical of important advertisers. However the open nature of the recent transgressions (and attempted transgressions) suggests it is happening more frequently, and with fewer reservations, as newspapers' financial distress worsens.

In the most recent and perhaps most egregious example, The Washington Post offered lobbyists and other interested parties the chance to "sponsor" informal, private dinners with politicians, hosted by editor Marcus Brauchli. The "sponsorship" fees for these influence-peddling events would range from $25,000 to $250,000. (Calling them "salons" did nothing to cover up the fact that The Washington Post was selling access to politicians, who were presumably prepared to play along in return for a cut of the cash or favorable coverage).



Beyond the mere sight of a journalistic icon prostituting itself, one of the most disturbing things about the ill-conceived pay-to-play idea was the brazen disregard for the newspaper's reputation.

To keep the venal scheme "on the down low," one might expect invitations to be offered hush-hush to specific individuals, whose discretion could be trusted. Instead, The Washington Post's marketing staff actually produced a brochure promoting the events, inviting all comers with cash in hand.

Furthermore, the lame excuse offered by publisher Katherine Weymouth after the plan was exposed -- "The flier was not approved by me or newsroom editors, and it did not accurately reflect what we had in mind" -- does nothing to restore confidence in the editorial integrity of the newspaper. It merely begs the questions: Where did the marketing staff get such a crazy, questionable idea? How can it arrange personal meetings for editors and journalists without their knowledge and consent? What exactly did Weymouth have in mind?

Ultimately her non-apology -- like the euphemizing term "salons" -- comes across as disingenuous, dodging the $250,000 question: Was The Washington Post prepared to help lobbyists gain simultaneous access to politicians and journalists in return for money? It appears so.

Editorial integrity is obviously of special importance when it comes to politics -- which not coincidentally, becomes one of the first targets for subjects who receive unfavorable coverage.

For example, in Southern California, the San Diego Union-Tribune came under pressure from one of its new co-owners, the public safety association representing Los Angeles police officers, which wanted to muzzle op-ed contributors critical of the role played by public employees' unions in the budget process. (After a drawn-out auction with little interest from buyers, the San Diego Union-Tribune was finally purchased in March for an undisclosed sum by Platinum Equity, which included a $30 million investment from the pension fund for the LAPD, under the management of the Los Angeles Police Protective League.)

The editorial page of the Union-Tribune, a traditionally conservative paper, has been especially strident in denouncing public employee unions. In response, the Protective League has used its new partial ownership to put pressure on editorial bosses to either stop publishing critical op-ed pieces, or simply fire the offending columnists.

Sergeant Paul M. Weber, the Police Protective League president, complained in a public letter posted on the League's Web site that the San Diego Union-Tribune "has one of the most virulently anti-public safety employee editorial sections of any newspaper in California, if not the country." Further, in a letter delivered to Tom Gores, the president and CEO of Platinum Equity, Weber wrote: "Since the very public employees they continually criticize are now their owners, we strongly believe that those who currently run the editorial pages should be replaced." For the time being, Platinum Equity appears to be resisting the pressure.

Similarly, in December 2008, it was revealed that former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, now on trial for corruption, tried to force the Tribune Co. to fire columnists who were critical of his plutocratic administration. To pressure Tribune boss Sam Zell into agreement, Blagojevich threatened to hold up the proposed sale of Wrigley Field (part of the Chicago Cubs property) to the Illinois State Finance Authority, an idea first suggested by Zell in the summer of 2008.

Although Blagojevich believed that Zell would comply with his demands, the columnists were never fired. A few months later, the back-channel negotiations were brought to light after Blagojevich's arrest, when federal investigators released incriminating transcripts of wiretaps on Blagojevich's phones. The failure to sell Wrigley Field was a factor in forcing Tribune to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Leaving politics aside, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, also owned by Tribune, have recently been troubled by initiatives from the business side that the editorial side contends undermines the integrity of the publications.

Two months ago, 55 reporters and editors at the Chicago Tribune signed an email to editor Gerould Kern and managing editor Jane Hirt accusing the paper's marketing department of surveying subscribers about unfinished stories to gauge their reaction -- laying the groundwork for deciding which articles will be published based on market sentiment. The marketing surveys were nixed, but editorial staffers never found out whether articles were changed or canceled because of responses to these surveys.

This came not long after newsroom staff at the Los Angeles Times lashed out at management for allowing an ad resembling an article on the front cover of the newspaper. The ad, for NBC's new LA police drama "Southland," was run over the objections of editor Russ Stanton and a dozen other senior editors. In an interview with TheWrap, LAT Executive Editor John Arthur called the front-page ad "horrible," "unfortunate" and "a mistake."

The conflict between editorial and business operations at the LAT has been long simmering. Last summer, the original Los Angeles Times Magazine was closed and replaced by a new publication, with a new editorial staff, entirely under the control of the Los Angeles Times Media Group. In short, control of the magazine came from the business -- not editorial -- side.

For ethical reasons, Stanton requested that the Media Group not call itself the Los Angeles Times Magazine, since it is not under the control of the newspaper's editorial staff. The new publication was given a slightly different name: L.A. Los Angeles Times Magazine. Recently, however, John T. O'Loughlin, the executive vice president and CMO for target media at the LAT Media Group, referred to the magazine as a "flagship publication" of the newspaper.

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