There’s an old saying in the newspaper business that no one is worse at communicating than the ones in the business.
That seems to be the case with the internal controversy at The Commercial Appeal about selling news sponsorships, or “monetizing the content,” in the unfortunate phrasing of management there.
In the absence of any dependable communication with the news staff about what was going on with this issue, multiple stories swirled at the CA as reporters were left to interpret smoke signals and to put two and two together, and what came from reporters as a result is what led to our post. This communication gap isn’t confined to this particular issue; it is the nature of the beast.
Yesterday’s post here was based on a prevalent story being circulated at The Commercial Appeal about selling news sponsorships, and we are pleased that management is belatedly trying to get the facts out to its own reporters and hopefully, they’ll do the same with the public. In an email circulated by Managing Editor Scott Sines, he says our post is “riddled with errors and should be corrected.”
As we said in the post, it’s the policy that’s troubling, and in an email from Mr. Sines circulated at the CA, he seems to acknowledge as much, saying that “in the case of the Memphis and the World project, we ran up to the edge of making a mistake.”
He then emphasizes that the integrity of editorial copy remains unaffected by the CA’s successful efforts to sell everything from the 50th Anniversary of Stax and Elvis Week to prep football coverage. However, he failed to explain or elaborate on the facts surrounding how the newspaper “ran up to the edge of making a mistake.”
Again, to our point, this notion of monetizing the copy does by its very nature lower the firewall between editorial and advertising and does it to the point that most of the reporters at The Commercial Appeal are disturbed by the direction being taken.
In falling back to the political tactic of arguing about a specific fact to avoid the discussion about the larger issue at question, The Commercial Appeal does it readers a disservice, because all of us deserve to understand how far the newspaper will go in seeking revenues, and as this recent miscue indicates, how fragile journalistic objectivity can be in this situation.
In today’s memo, Mr. Sines says that editors at The Commercial Appeal “do not tell reporters to back off stories.” That’s good news, but it’s not consistent with what some reporters on his staff feel, because whether they like it or not, there is an unspoken pressure not to offend a sponsoring company and the strictly human impulse to keep your business sponsor happy.
As we do with any reader, we welcome a commentary by The Commercial Appeal that we can post on this blog. In the meantime, we hope that if nothing else, this issue and the internal firestorm that it’s created at our newspaper will sensitize editors even more about the public trust that is entrusted to them and the importance of communicating effectively to their own reporters so that even the appearance of a conflict, a standard the newspaper advocates for almost every one else it covers, is removed.
But, back to our post, the sad state of the morale at the newspaper and the frustration in the newsroom are important to us as readers, because they often stem from management decisions that do in fact affect the quality and the content of the news we read. For that reason, the post is part of a larger discussion that is taking place already in this city and deservedly so.
Meanwhile, as Mr. Sines writes, “We are in the process of finalizing company guidelines for monetizing content at the newspaper.” We await them, understanding that there is policy and then there is reality.