Monday, January 30, 2012

Onward, Part Two

Perhaps because we are enjoined to spew out of our mouths that which is lukewarm, it’s always been hard to say, when confronted with the imperfections of newspapers as opposed to the ideals of journalism – well, this newspaper may not be perfect, it may not be as good as it can be, but perhaps it’s better than any of the alternatives that could reasonably be expected to occur. But part of it was, it was just the way things were. One didn’t speak back in those days of how international coverage was being passively underwritten by automobile dealers and Realtors. The concept didn’t even enter one’s head. There was advertising revenue, there was spending on news coverage, things went into a big pot and then someone doled out the honey.

At least that was the case in newsrooms, most of which were into the 1970s before the concept of “a budget” took hold – not a news budget, but a spending budget. Until then, you spent money, and if you were spending too much money, the publisher told you to spend a little less for a while. The publisher was never going to give the newsroom enough money to break the bank, and the editor had a pretty good idea of what he could spend – but it was still a business where, as happened in Alabama in the 1990s, the editor of Newhouse’s Mobile paper could be talking to a company official about wanting to obtain a sister paper’s coverage of University of Alabama football and be told, well, why don’t you just hire your own beat writer? It was informal, ad hoc and, as long as the owners got enough money to live their lives the way they wanted to, not terribly complicated.

We, of course, as journalists, were too high-minded and high-status to think about things like how the money was divided up, which brings us to progress editions. At my first two papers we did progress editions. Whether you were a reporter or an editor, you were assigned stories for the progress edition. (For those unfamiliar with the idea, it is a once-a-year section extolling the community’s economic growth and prospects, and including company-by-company profiles, which, depending upon the local view of things, were variously 1) done totally on a journalistic basis, or 2) assigned based on who bought ads but still were written objectively, or 3) were written as puff pieces that were guaranteed when you bought an ad. But they were done by the newsroom and not the advertising department.)

I, like everyone else in the newsroom, resented doing progress editions. It wasn’t my regular job. It was shilling for someone who bought an ad. It had no news peg. It wasn’t what I went to college to do. It did not benefit society. That was what advertising people did – promised an advertiser anything to get money. I was above that. I was a journalist. These were elements from a less ethical past, when reporters took free liquor at Christmas from the mayor. Still, I had to do it, so I tried to write the best article on the National Automatic Tool Co. that I could. But I knew nothing about its business, had no interest in what it did, and, to be honest, looked down on the people who worked there, managers and workers alike, as people who spent their lives assembling National Automatic Tools, whatever they were, while I was living in the world of ideas, of abstractions, of political and generational change, hanging out with hip young people who didn’t drive pickups, didn’t go hunting, didn't follow conventional morality, and didn’t wear flannel shirts except to be cool.

In the second year of my doing progress edition work – I believe this year I had to edit the stories – I asked the managing editor, why do we, professional journalists, have to do this crap? It is beneath us. To which he answered: You may not have noticed, but no one advertises in January and February. It’s winter. Most people don’t buy new cars.  Most people don’t buy new houses. Knollenberg’s and Elder-Beerman don’t run big sales.  People just buy what they have to, so other than the supermarkets, businesses don’t advertise.  This is how we make money in January and February, by appealing to the vanity and civic pride of the Wayne Works and the Second National Bank and the National Automatic Tool Co. They want to advertise in the section because everyone advertises in the section and if they don’t, someone at the Rotary will say, “I see you didn’t advertise in the progress edition. Aren’t you for our city’s progress? Are you having, er, financial problems?” If we didn’t do this, we would have less money and would have to do less the rest of the year.  So go edit the damned stories.

I was amazed, given that the American economy no longer is based upon local industries such as the National Automatic Tool Co., to see not only that progress editions are still being published, but that the reaction to them – in this case from a journalism professor – is exactly the same. Justin Martin, Ph.D., Honors preceptor at the University of Maine – yes, I had to look “preceptor” up, it basically means “head of the honors program” – reacted unfavorably to a progress edition in the Bangor Daily News, the local paper for the main campus in Orono. Unlike in my day, the stories were advertorial. Unlike in my day, the section was labeled as advertorial. But as Martin notes:

“According to the author of the articles, these stories focused only on companies that had previously purchased advertising from the paper. Editors, though, weren’t transparent about this with readers. Atop each of the seven full-page articles extolling the virtues of the businesses, there was no note to readers indicating the stories were linked to money coming into the newspaper. The content was delivered on broadsheet newsprint, not the smaller inserts of, say, Best Buy offerings or Parade magazine, which set the content apart from a paper’s own news. And the newspaper’s name listed beneath each of Fitzpatrick’s bylines seemed likely to confuse readers into believing these were standard news stories on Maine businesses.  The minuscule disclaimer is not enough. This insert feeds readers copy that looks like vetted news. In the version of the insert published online, the notice that the coverage is linked to advertising is invisible unless one zooms in considerably on the front page.”

Martin – who, and I know this is a cheap shot worthy of Michele Bachmann, not only mentions his doctorate in the tagline, but once in the article where it is not really necessary -- is severely offended by all this. His feeling: “Readers have virtually no way of knowing that the upbeat coverage of the businesses is connected to paid advertising. Even if readers saw the extremely small identification of an ‘advertising supplement’ on the front page of insert, is that enough? Readers don’t know the content inside is a thank-you to companies that have written checks to the paper. The section’s front page boasts in very visible type that ‘Maine has a rich business history, and within these pages you’ll find great examples. And we’ll honor seven of those businesses that have stood the test of time with in-depth histories.’ This language leads readers to believe The Bangor Daily News is independently appraising these companies. When flattering news coverage is in any way linked to paid advertising, news providers have an overriding obligation to fully disclose that quid pro quo to the public. Of course, it would be better if news outlets simply resolved not to flirt with deceiving their audiences in the first place.”

Well, all well and good, except, of course, we have not proved that anything in these stories is false, overwritten or deceptive beyond the fact of their existence. The editor of the Daily News, after some hemming and hawing, promised in the future to try to have each article labeled as “advertising.” And I’m not writing to defend the section – it may be a piece of junk.

But here it is 2012, after years upon years of collapse in the newspaper business, and Preceptor Martin, Ph.D., remains as high-minded as Young Journalist Sullivan was in the 1970s. The answer of “this is how the Bangor Daily News pays its bills in the winter” would doubtless not satisfy him. The answer of “we do this so that we can provide more and better journalism in the news sections” would not satisfy him either, any more than it would have me back then, although it would now. The only answer that would satisfy him is, “Journalism must be above commerce.” Because, of course, journalists should not have to deal with the sort of messy matters that confront the publisher of the Daily News – or that confronted the owners of the National Automatic Tool Co., which did not last much longer than my story about it. Journalists place in society is to do journalism, and the car dealers can subsidize the cost.

At this point in my life, my prescription would be somewhat different that Martin’s, although we might agree on some points. Make it a news section. Do two or three good stories about business in Maine and Bangor. Then have reporters do stories on firms that buy ads – not just a 1x2, you have to buy a quarter-page. Tell them the reason they are doing these stories is that today’s equivalents of NATCO – the hospitals, the trucking companies, the firms that fill the office parks -- are where most of the readers work.  Their stories, their companies’ stories, are usually untold in the newspaper, which will never notice them unless they go bankrupt or have a layoff. (We will spend our time focusing on government and agencies for the disempowered.) And no, we don’t want a piece trashing these companies. But it doesn’t have to be slimeball stuff either. It’s just a piece saying, here’s what the CEO or whoever says the next year looks like for his company, and exactly what it is his company does, and what his company's local payroll is, and is that up or down from last year, and so forth. And now you, our local journalist employee, actually know something about the people who write the checks that pay your readers who spend money on the newspaper and its advertisers. And now you, our local journalist employee, understand that your own paycheck comes from much the same place. And yes, we're going to call it a progress edition, and no, we're not going to use it to critique capitalism or call for Realtors to get 2 percent commissions or ask how the CEO can live in a $1 million house while people are homeless.

But if you can pay for more and better journalism through stratagems such as a progress edition – which John Q. Reader is not going to give a fig about its provenance one way or the other – in this financially challenged era, and can benefit your newspaper, then, to channel noted journalism critic Sarah Palin, “Sell, baby, sell.” It may not be perfect, but these days it's as good as can reasonably be expected to occur. Part Three to come.


Perry Gaskill said...

This is difficult to articulate, but it seemed to me the Travis Martin piece at Poynter tipped over into the sanctimonious in a way that hampered it as an object lesson, and became the sort of pithy little diatribe someone might whip up to amuse one's pals in the faculty lounge.

Martin may not actually be that kind of person, or have had such intent, but that was the tone conveyed.

It's probably also true that in order to buy into Martin's point of view you need to make a couple of questionable assumptions including the idea that a newspaper audience is woefully ignorant, and needs a nanny to protect it from those who might veer from the sacred tenets of the SPJ by venturing into heretical "gray" areas.

As if Bangor Daily News readers didn't have enough common sense to recognize the progress section for what it was, and needed big bright SPJ-sanctioned warning labels just in case the content might be exposed to small children or the feeble minded.

The stories weren't advertorial in the strict sense; the businesses profiled didn't pay for the content. That detail was evidently taken care of with a separate ad stack of other businesses. And for the most part, the main stories were pretty much straight-up chronological narrative. Was it softball journalism? Sure. Did it veer wildly into pandering and hyperbole? Not really.

If you think about it, what BDN's David Fitzpatrick did in writing about the businesses was not too far distant from, say, the kind of thing Studs Terkel was doing back in the day, or what William Least Heat-Moon wrote about in Blue Highways by describing the four-calendar cafe.

It also seems to me that if you really want to know where the BDN's special section was coming from, contained within it is a photograph of somebody's goofy Irish Setter sitting in front of a nursery sign. It's the kind of non-contrived casual snapshot you might see hanging on somebody's refrigerator door, and in a strange way serves as a summary artifact by saying things in a way a marketing-speak 500-word press release almost never can.

Yet another assumption, and this seems more like failure to recognize a dilemma, is the idea that once a business buys an ad from the paper, that business is somehow set aside as a news source because to use it as such is to risk appearing as a shill for the business quoted.

And the sad thing is that members of the business community, including those whose lives, for better or worse, are defined by what they do, become the faceless drone behind the counter; someone a reporter considers as something to be endured just before he rushes off to hear what the mayor has to say.

Anonymous said...

Our progress edition isn't called a progress edition, doesn't link coverage to content in a direct way (there may be discreet suggestions made that I don't know about), and includes sections on education and agriculture, which aren't strong sources for ad sales. It is a major moneymaker.

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