Fake story hurts our credibility
T o all but the most savvy readers, The Union is all the same place. Advertising, delivery, business office, reporters – as far as most folks are concerned, if we work in the same building, in the same business, we all have the same outlook and pretty much same goals.
I get letters complaining about the spelling in advertisements, which the newsroom has nothing to do with. People call me about wet newspapers (circulation department), smeary ink (production department), or mistakes on their bill (business office). That’s OK, though. I put those folks in touch with the right person, or have somebody call them back. That’s good customer service, which we’re all trying to do well.
However, just as there is supposed to be a wall between church and state in a our democracy, there is a metaphorical wall between the news and advertising departments at newspapers. However, as with the church/state wall, the one at newspapers is crumbling a bit of late. And those of us on the news side are feeling like the little dutch boy with our finger in the dike.
This line of thought was triggered last Saturday by an advertisement on Page 2 of The Union. But it wasn’t labeled an ad – in fact, it was designed to look like a news story, with a headline that said, “Nevada County’s Best Tacos.” It was also written like a news story, with the text pretending to be an interview with one David Wambaugh.
Mr. Wambaugh is in a dispute with Grass Valley over his efforts to build a taco restaurant. He wanted to rally support for a Planning Commission meeting, and admitted to one of our editors that he avoided talking to our reporters so he could buy an ad and “slant” a “story” in his favor.
He tried to fool the reader by buying an advertisement dressed up as news, and found an ad salesman who was willing to play along to get a commission, even though there are well-established rules to label all ads as such, and not to create ads that look like news stories. The only hint of the real nature of the ruse was a line at the bottom saying, “Paid for by David Wambaugh.”
The credibility of a newspaper is a fragile thing. There are people who believe we slant or exaggerate the news to sell more newspapers (even though most of a newspaper’s profit is from advertising, not newspaper sales). Why wouldn’t those people also believe that we would sell our news columns to someone for self-serving purposes? Once you lost your credibility as a news organization, you’re no better than a free shopping tabloid.
A fundamental premise of journalism is that a journalist should not be sharing revenue or have a business relationship with somebody that he’s writing a story about. If you think this is a trivial concern, look at what happened at the Los Angeles Times a few years ago when some people forgot that the wall is there for a purpose.
The Times reached a deal to sponsor the Staples Center, a $400 million sports and entertainment complex downtown. It met part of its financial commitment by publishing a 168-page Sunday magazine supplement and – here’s the controversial part – splitting the $2 million in advertising revenues with the center. The reporters and editors working on the supplement were not told about the revenue-sharing agreement. If they had, they ethically would have refused to write stories for it.
When the dust had settled, the CEO, publisher and editor of the Times were squeezed out, and their parent company was sold to the Chicago Tribune.
In the news department, our job is to do the best job of covering our county for our readers. If we do our job well, then more people will read us. If more people read us, then advertisers will buy ads – which is the goal our advertising department.
The reader is often not aware that many publications inserted in The Union are advertising supplements, written and produced by the ad department as vehicles for advertisers. The “Best of Nevada County” feature is designed the same way. Advertisers encourage their employees and customers to vote as many times as possible so they can have the honor of being the “best.”
Because of the “wall,” we in the newsroom don’t produce stories for the “Best of” contest. But we do recognize the importance of advertising revenue in keeping us in business. We feel that it’s at least as important to recognize that readers will only support a newspaper that fosters credibility, and trust that its news columns are not for sale.
Many of us went into journalism because we were terrible at math, because the sciences were out of the question. I am one of those, and I should always have someone following me around with a calculator, checking my numbers.
This week, in the Idaho-Maryland Mine story, I added a line and messed up the price of gold. Then in a correction I goofed up something else. Fortunately, the writer of the piece, Grace Karpa, did not punch me out, although she probably wanted to. My public apologies to her.
Richard Somerville is editor of The Union. His column appears every Saturday
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