The Digital Journalist
Good Reputations
Don't Come Cheap
November 2007

by Mark Doremus and Karen Slattery

Kudos to the Memphis Flyer, a newsweekly that broke the story about The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal's plan to "monetize" its news content.

"Monetize" is apparently business-speak for creating a cozy relationship between the news, sales and marketing departments.

And kudos to the members of The Commercial Appeal's news staff who revolted, causing the newpaper's management to backpedal from the idea.

The Flyer reported that it all started after The Commercial Appeal arranged the sponsorship of a weekly real-estate column called "Done Deals." The CA then followed with a plan to enlist FedEx as a sponsor of at least one story in a series about international business.

A reported 50 or so newsroom staff members at The Commercial Appeal responded by signing a petition that decried the idea of sponsored content.

The newspaper's managing editor admitted, in an e-mail to a media watchdog, the Poynter Institute, that "we ran up to the edge of making a mistake" with the proposed FedEx sponsorship.

The Memphis-based FedEx had an obvious vested interest in a series about international business.

But what's most interesting about this whole incident is the memo from the editor of The Commercial Appeal, Chris Peck, and the VP of Sales and Strategic Planning, Rob Jiranek. The memo was leaked to the Memphis Flyer and posted online.

The pair told The Commercial Appeal employees that the traditional firewall between the news, advertising and circulation departments was no longer necessary in the "new world" of media economics. They observed that news, marketing and advertising departments needed to "work cooperatively to develop products that can generate revenue."

Peck and Jiranek proclaimed that "in no instances will advertisers be offered or granted editorial influence over news content or news section."

Perhaps you, the reader of this column, can imagine journalists and sales people sitting down in the same room and planning content that will garner direct advertiser support without compromising the editorial independence of a newsroom.

We find it hard to fathom.

But let's assume it could be done.

The Commercial Appeal would still have an apparent conflict of interest that would taint the relationship of trust between the journalist and audience, the linchpin of any news organization's credibility.

That's why the American Society of Newspaper Editors tells journalists to stay away from "any conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict."

That's why the Society of Professional Journalists says journalists should resist pressure from advertisers and special interest groups.

And that's why the Radio and Television News Directors Association states that professional journalists should "determine news content solely through editorial judgment…."

We could go on, but here's the point: A perception of a conflict of interest is as damaging as an actual conflict of interest.

Once the circulation, advertising and editorial leaders of a newspaper sit down together to negotiate content, the perception of a conflict is created, whatever checks and balances may exist.

The audience is not privy to the conversation. It can only fear the worst, and rightly so.

© Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.

Mark Doremus has a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now employed as a research administrator. He worked in television news for 13 years in various capacities, primarily as a news reporter-photographer. He still cares deeply about the press, in all its forms, and its practitioners. He met his wife and co-columnist, Karen Slattery, when they were both working in local television news.