As The Commercial Appeal gets ready for its star turn as location for the movie, “Nothing But the Truth,” the film’s name has special irony in light of the recent internal controversy at our daily newspaper about the sponsorship of news coverage.
It’s created a tense atmosphere at The Commercial Appeal and given credence to deep suspicions in the newsroom about the current direction of the paper.
The idea itself has all the earmarks of groupthink on the business side of the house, but unfortunately, it didn’t encounter any strong resistance from editor Chris Peck, who should have known better.
We’re sympathetic to his plight. The motto of Scripps may be, “Give light and people will find their own way,” but these days, the chain – trying to prop up its newspapers’ value until they can sell most of them – is willing to put a price tag on both the light and the way.
Caught between calls from Cincinnati to increase revenues and the blurring lines between journalism and infotainment, he apparently succumbed to the urge to “monetize the content.” (These days, you frequently hear the word, monetize, in connection with websites, such as “monetizing visitors.”) That phrase alone should have never crossed his lips, much less words in favor of a sponsorship for a news series.
Instead, “monetizing the content” led him initally to enter into an agreement with Northwest Airlines to “sponsor” an around-the-world series of articles about Memphis’ strong relationships with great world cities. While there was a presumption that those cities would just coincidentally include the airlines’ major hubs, it fell apart and FedEx picked up the sponsorship.
Here’s the second mistake. After selling news coverage to the corporate giant, Mr. Peck assigned Trevor Aaronson to write the series with Beijing as one of his first ports of call.
It was an amazing choice. Mr. Aaronson is arguably the best hire that The Commercial Appeal has made in years, a tough, hard-hitting investigative reporter who pulls no punches in his questioning or his writing. His impact at the CA has been immediate, and a call from him is now greeted with as much dread as one from his veteran colleague, Marc Perrusquia.
He was an odd choice for a corporate-sponsored junket, but nonetheless, it was his assignment, and he appeared to relish the project. So, off he went on his travels, and upon his return, he turns his attention to writing the series.
Unsurprisingly, as he is prone to do, he set out to report “real” news from his trip, and this was not the original intent of those who came up with this ill-conceived idea. So, he writes an article about FedEx and Beijing, and it provokes immediate heartburn at The Commercial Appeal.
His coverage was considered less than flattering by Mr. Peck, who summoned him and Assistant Managing Editor (News) Louis Graham – himself a considerable force as an investigative reporter in his reporting days – to his office to discuss ways to fix the copy.
Before it was over, Mr. Graham was sent home, and Aaronson was left with the assignment to write the kind of copy on which the sponsor would look more kindly. It all ratcheted up a notch when he refused to write, a gutsy and honorable call on his part.
Or so one popular version of the sequence of events goes in the newsroom of The Commercial Appeal. However, in the end, however, it’s not the sequence that matters to us; it’s the sponsorship policy.
The controversy captivated the newsroom, where the sponsorship of the series of articles by Northwest Airlines had been greeted with raised eyebrows when information about it was posted on the bulletin board some months ago. However, when it became clear that advertising would influence news coverage, the questionable journalistic decision led every one to take sides, and it was clear where the sentiment of the newsroom lay.
A petition was begun and attracted the signatures of most reporters, protesting the entire philosophy of taking money for news coverage. In a world where editorial writers often see the slippery slope of bad public policy, the first slip for the paper was the little noticed Boyle Investment Company sponsorship of the Sunday business column, “Done Deals.”
But with the controversy over the FedEx sponsorship, the issue reached a whole new level, and its intensity resulted in a call from management for the Poynter Institute to mediate the disagreement.
Mistake #3: Poynter of course sided with the reporter and assistant managing editor.
Clearly, the bitterness of many reporters is raw, as one says that if the movie soon to film at the newspaper needs “someone to play an editor, we have one.”
Meanwhile, it’s also said that maybe the newspaper should sell a sponsorship to Smith and Wesson for daily murder coverage, or perhaps the Shelby County Board of Commissioners should sponsor Alex Doniach’s coverage of county government. While that notion borders on the absurd, who would have thought that journalists would accept “sponsorships” from the Bush Administration either?
So, with support from the news staff already tenuous and now almost nonexistent and with his leadership in tatters, Mr. Peck is faced with the really tough question: Now what?
Perhaps, a good place for him to start is to re-read the mission statement printed on the editorial page, especially the bullet that says: “to act independently and fairly.” In hindsight, it’s difficult to imagine how Mr. Peck expected to navigate the shoals of journalistic objectivity and sponsored news.
Like most newspapers these days, our venerable daily seems totally perplexed with how to fight declining circulation in the digital age. One thing seems pretty obvious: the most precious commodities for any newspaper still remain respect and integrity.
Listen To The Talent
The present leadership at The Commercial Appeal has gotten perilously close to exhausting it. At a time when deeper coverage of the news could be the differentiator for the “Old Reliable,” it’s cut veteran staff and exiled others, it’s cut corners and it shows. Its view of a future built on a balkanized region with a definite suburban slant not only shortchanges the paper, but most of all, does a disservice to its readers.
If there’s good news to be derived from this dispute, maybe it’s the indication that editor and publisher might actually be listening to its own reporters. It’s too soon to tell whether it’s sincere or just crisis management, but it’s time. After all, these are the people who know Memphis best and perhaps, faced with no solutions that are working, it’s worth management listening to them.
In the end, the old adage is still true: news is whatever an underpaid, overworked reporter says it is. Attempts by editors and publishers to manage the news so often end in disaster.
And right now, the fences to be mended by the editor are in a shambles. There already was enough discontent at the newspaper over incidents in which the editor seemed to abandon his reporting staff, notably Daniel Connolly’s fine article about a local bank that makes home loans to illegal aliens. On the Sunday following the story, Mr. Peck threw his reporter under the bus in his editor’s column, shocking a jaded newroom that thought they’d seen it all and providing a clear indication of where the editorial loyalty lay.
Crisis Management 101
Speaking of crisis management, a few years ago, the CA gave the University of Memphis a much-needed editorial slap for its latest P.R. gaffe and suggested that it get serious about a crisis management plan. The same goes for the CA.
The first rule of crisis management applies: walk toward your problem, not away from it. That’s why about now it would be good for Mr. Peck to devote his column to this issue and come clean with readers who want the reassurance that the news they are reading doesn’t come with a for sale sign attached to it.
Meanwhile, we hope the CA is getting enough money for serving as a set for the Matt-Dillon starred movie, “Nothing But The Truth,” that it makes up for this imprudent idea to produce a new source of revenue.
In announcing his movie, writer-director Rod Lurie said: “I’ve been interested in the heroics of reporters…for a very long time.” It’s a fitting wake-up call in management at The Commercial Appeal. Now’s the time for them to be heroes, too, and they begin by protecting the integrity of their own news-gathering operation.