Yesterday I brought you cheery news of the Cincinnati Enquirer seeking an investigative reporter willing to tailor content to the 25-45 demographic (no more nursing home exposes), inject themselves into their stories, and work with an “advertising partner to grow and monetize” the audience. (Not the “readership,” that’s so 20th Century.) Since the Enky is part of the Gannett chain, it raised the question: are the Burlington Free Press reporters similarly for sale?
The ad was posted on journalism watchdog Jim Romenesko’s website, and he included an invitation for response from the Enquirer. He got one today.
And it’s even worse than the original ad.
Enquirer editor Carolyn Washburn’s reply began thusly:
I included this expectation [for the reporter to work with the ad side] in all beat job descriptions, though it’s less likely to be relevant in some than others. It’s less likely to be relevant for investigative than the health reporter, for example.
Oh, so it’s not just the investigative reporter who’s for sale — it’s all their reporters. Do the Free Press’ job listings also include such language?
As for “health reporter,” well, that’s just rich. Is the health reporter matched up with, say, the local medical center or insurance carrier? Is the food reporter brought to you by Kroger (or Shaw’s)? Is the environment reporter sponsored by Entergy?
(Well, I guess I don’t have to worry about that one. The Free Press hasn’t had an environment reporter since Candace Page departed.)
Onward into Washburn’s ever-deepening pit of ethical doom.
…the idea is that our adv sales rep and our reporter are very often talking to the same people in an organization. So we want that sales rep and that reporter to know each other. They can share insights they are learning about the industry and that organization. An advertiser often has questions about news content and our content strategies. The sales rep doesn’t have to be the one to answer all that. We can sometimes make introductions for each other in the organization that may be helpful. They can go on “get to know you” or “what’s new” visits with each other. I’ve done some of these myself.
This is so bad in so many ways.
Journalistic convention used to dictate a “Chinese wall” between sales and content. No communication, no infiltration of commercial concerns into editorial decisions. Now, they want the sales rep and the reporter to work side by side. They want advertisers to directly contact reporters with “questions about news content.” They want sales reps and reporters to jointly visit advertisers.
Good God almighty.
After all that hot mess, Washburn appends some words designed to comfort her “news consumers.”
Of course, we will and must say no. …When an advertiser wants us to do a story just because they’re an advertiser, we say no. We’ve told the staff that as we go forward and begin to build these relationships, that the most important thing is to raise questions if they are ever uncomfortable or uncertain. We’ll talk things through as things come up to be sure we do the right thing.
Okay, yeah. Reporters, who know their jobs are constantly under threat, should feel free to raise ethical questions with editors who are acting as shills for their corporate masters and encouraging advertisers to badger reporters about news stories.
And, when reporters build relationships with advertisers on their beat, it’s only natural to avoid antagonizing their newfound friends. (Especially when their next job after being laid off from Gannett may well be as a corporate shill, drawing much better pay than a humble reporter.)
How the hell is this not a setup for slanted, advertiser-friendly news coverage?
I don’t know if the Enquirer’s approach is shared by the Free Press. But as I said yesterday, given the lockstep nature of Gannett’s Newsroom of the Future rollout, there is every reason to believe that the Freeploid is turning its reporters into content whores right under our noses.