When the News is for Sale

In journalism, it’s the equivalent of selling your soul to the devil.

Or just not giving a damn.

Not that it doesn’t happen all around, every single day. You just hate it when it strikes so close to home. And so blatantly.

My hometown newspaper is The Jonesboro Sun. It’s  been around more than 100 years.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an alumnus of The Sun, and spent eight years working there as a general assignment reporter from 1989 to 1997. After that, I was involved in more than one journalistic enterprise that competed with The Sun for both news and advertising dollars.

As a matter of further disclosure, the newspaper’s top management has never particularly cared for me, and I don’t necessarily love them with all my heart either. Oh, the humanity.

With that disclosure, I believe it’s still quite possible to address the following topic objectively. And that’s what I now aspire to do.

If you live in Northeast Arkansas, and you are one of the few remaining people who subscribes to The Jonesboro Sun, or just believe in the importance untainted journalism, you should be aware of what I’m about to explain.

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This is the paid advertisement that creates the conflict of interest on today's front page of The Jonesboro Sun.

This is the paid advertisement that creates the conflict of interest on today’s front page of The Jonesboro Sun.

Today, is the day your local newspaper sunk to an all-time low.

Allow me to elucidate.

Journalistic vehicles (i.e., newspapers, radio, television, et al) exist for multiple reasons, top among which is to hold those in the public trust accountable. It’s an honorable profession, and a demanding one, and because it’s so important as to be addressed in the Bill of Rights, the public, at large, should hold the media accountable as well. When the media becomes corrupt, all is lost.

From the beginning of their educations, journalists are taught that the “news hole” (all the space not dedicated to paid advertisements) is sacred. That space is to be approached without consideration to anything that could affect its content. It’s at the heart of journalistic integrity and objectivity.

This is the point where you should understand how many media outlets sacrifice their integrity. It’s all about the money, and only those who are truly dedicated to quality journalism avoid this at all costs.

A newspaper makes its money in two ways. Subscriptions and advertising. Subscription revenue amounts to almost nothing. Paid advertising is the bread and butter of any print publication. It pays the production, the salaries, everything. So you can imagine how important advertisers are to any newspaper.

Let’s imagine a very large and influential commercial entity with deep pockets makes a 12-month commitment to advertise in a newspaper. Depending on certain variables, that commitment amounts to several tens of thousands of dollars.

And let’s further imagine that at the signing of that advertising contract, the corporate representative of the advertiser hints at the possibility of some nice news coverage of their upcoming grand opening.

The seed is planted and the vision for real journalism now becomes blurry.

Major advertisers wield huge power over editorial content. It happens all the time. It shouldn’t but it does. Weak journalism management (usually with a less than average product) caves to this practice regularly.

It’s a “this for that.” And news should never be for sale.

A broader perspective of the May 30, 2013, front page of The Jonesboro Sun and the proximity of the paid advertisement (at bottom) to a related news story headlined Great Expectations.

A broader perspective of the May 30, 2013, front page of The Jonesboro Sun and the proximity of the paid advertisement (at bottom) to a related news story headlined Great Expectations.

It happened today in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Not that it’s the first time, or that it will be the last.

It’s just never been quite so blatant.

Among the most precious of a newspaper’s commodities is its front page. If you read a newspaper today, I’ll bet you can’t recite a single headline from page A8, but I’ll bet you can recall at least one or two stories from the front page. Everyone sees the front page, if but for a moment.

News on the front page is the ultimate placement.  The judgment for what goes on that space carries the ultimate responsibility and it’s held by the publisher and editor.

A number of years ago, unfortunately, many newspapers went in a bad direction as they started experimenting with paid advertisements on their front pages.

It’s not right, and it was a bad road to go down, but they did it and many still do. Today, you can buy almost anything on the front page of some publications.

It’s a bad idea for the explanation given earlier. Let’s further imagine this fictional scenario.

The county government spends $100,000 a year in the local newspaper promoting tourism. Midway though the contract a county official is accused of sexually harassing multiple county employees. The newspaper is about to break the story and the county treasurer reminds the newspaper publisher that there is $50,000 remaining on their contract, which could be pulled at any moment. Ultimately, the published story isn’t nearly as factual and sharp as it should have been. It was tainted. Less than 100 percent truth.

It’s an extreme, and fictional example, but you get the point.

Today’s front page of The Jonesboro Sun exhibits something I’ve honestly never seen. It includes a paid advertisement for a local hospital in a banner strip across the bottom … and the most prominent news story on the page is about that very hospital, and the headline is not one that you would exactly call objective. It should have had a big Smiley Face beside it.smiley

The photo that accompanies the story even captures the newspaper publisher touring the facility.

It’s the ultimate disregard for a journalists’ responsibility to his reader.

If The Jonesboro Sun can be swayed to sacrifice any integrity it has, and giving this for that by something as harmless as the opening of a new hospital, what can its readers expect when it really matters?

We should demand better.

(Blogger’s Note: As a point of clarification, and before anyone wants to go down this road, I am in no way asserting that the hospital did anything wrong in this case. A marketing department should do everything it can to put its organization in a good place in the public eye. The newspaper, on the other hand, should know how to contain this.)

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A Response to the Reader Who Made Me the Angriest I’ve Ever Been

freedom of expression

“I hate rude behavior in a man. Won’t tolerate it.” ~ Capt. Woodrow F. Call in Lonesome Dove

Most who read my work, know that while I’m opinionated, I’m about the easiest going guy in the world.

I’m also a professional. I’ve been paid to write my entire life, have 170 collegiate hours, two degrees and have published articles in two professional journals on the topic of communications law and ethics. And as a professional I have a VERY thick skin.

My work is out there for public consumption. I put it out there every day, and with that, comes any reader’s right to make fair comment and criticism. I welcome your critique, in fact. Make a claim I’ve failed to be objective. Say I’m in error some way. I’m okay with that. I’m here to defend my work, and if you prove me wrong, I’ll acknowledge it and do the right thing.

But there’s one thing you don’t do to me, or to any other person in this profession if I’m around.

You don’t question my RIGHT to freely express an opinion or publish an objective article. You want to fight? Just question that right, and we can stand toe to toe until the last man stands.

At 4:30 a.m. today (August 23, 2012), I made an objective post resulting from an interview I did with Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jackson was in my hometown yesterday leading a peaceful demonstration about the circumstances in which a young man committed suicide in the back of a patrol car. You may view that post here: http://wp.me/p2bjEC-C6

Jesse Jackson is a lightning rod, especially here in the South. People love him, or hate him, and it’s all totally beside the point. When it comes to free speech, Jackson has a right to do what he damn well pleases, and so do I.

Following my typical pattern for a worthy story, I reposted during lunch for the benefit of those who might have missed it in the early morning.

And moments later, a reader publicly posts on Facebook: “…no need to keep stirring this mess up,  Steve.”

He sucker punched me.

I turned red, and actually felt my body twitching. My blood boiled. Them’s fightin’ words.

It’s the one thing you don’t say to me. This mess, dear reader, is one of the critical issues of our time, and it’s now in my backyard, and in yours. Bury your head in the ground. It won’t solve the problem. It won’t go away.

It would have been so much better if you had just questioned the legitimacy of the story. We could have enjoyed a civil debate, as men should, and likely, would have come to terms to simply agree to disagree. But rather, you questioned my very right to freely express. We live in America, do we not?

FYI, critical reader, the messy post to which you refer, was read by more than 200 people on five continents, and was Google-searched internationally more than 30 times. I can make a case it had some redeeming value.

But the mess isn’t the issue here, sir. Forget the “messy” content that makes you so uneasy. (Though I guess you’re right in some regard: It would have been so much better if Woodward and Bernstein had avoided that whole Watergate thing altogether. It was SOOO messy.)

Step back, critical reader, take a breath, and remember that thing we call the First Amendment. I believe it has something to say about a thing we call freedom of expression.

And so I’ll express what I damn well please.

If it makes you uncomfortable, I’m glad. Black people and white people are at odds in this town for no good reason. I hope it makes us all squirm.

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