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An Uneasy Alliance of News and Ads

Citing a need for healthier finances, newspapers are breaking down the separation of business, editorial departments. Many fear a loss of independence.

March 29, 1998|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To avoid such compromises anywhere in the paper, says Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing Co., the top people in a news organization must be clear about where the line is and why it can't be moved or crossed. Everyone in the organization must understand that journalistic integrity is paramount and that the editor's decision will be final on all journalistic questions. Just such a "very deeply held, shared understanding" exists at the Chicago Tribune, Fuller says.

With much less fanfare than the Los Angeles Times, Tribune Co. has been a pioneer in breaking down traditional barriers of all kinds. The company is a leader in online media, combining the resources of its newspaper, television and radio stations, and Tribune reporters routinely appear on the company's cable TV station, which has had a permanent camera position in the Tribune newsroom since 1993. For the past several months, the Tribune has been operating out of a new multimedia newsroom, which includes a TV production studio and has representatives of the cable TV station and the online paper sitting alongside Tribune editors on the paper's assignment desk.

The Tribune has been at the forefront of interdepartmental cooperation.

"We've had a pretty strong relationship between the troika of marketing, advertising and editorial for as long as I've been an editor, which is now 12 years," Editor Howard Tyner says, and the result has been "an improved advertising situation without a loss of either editorial independence or integrity. You can focus everybody's attention on creating a newspaper that serves peoples' needs better if everybody has a deeper understanding of what the other guy is up against."

Yes, but. . . .

Last fall, the Tribune entered into a marketing partnership with Starbucks Coffee that included Starbucks' agreement to sell the paper in 90 of its outlets. The day after the Tribune boasted of this promotional arrangement in its internal employee publication ("The Starbucks agreement is an example of what happens when different departments within the Chicago Tribune work together . . . "), a flattering story on the CEO of Starbucks was splashed across the top of a feature section of the Tribune (headline: "The Starbucking of America").

Tribune editors say this was a coincidence, and the reporter who wrote the story says he did so on his own initiative, without even knowing about the marketing agreement. But skeptical eyebrows were raised. Where integrity is concerned, appearances can often be as important as reality, and many reporters worry about their credibility being undermined by just such inter-jurisdictional ventures, even if they are conceived and executed in good faith.

Reporters at the Tribune's cross-town rival, the Sun Times, have been especially concerned the last few years about the credibility of their paper; top editors there have instituted a policy that rewards firms that advertise in the paper and punishes those that don't.

On what he calls "discretionary" stories--which department store Santa to picture in the paper, for example--Larry Green, executive editor of the Sun Times, says the paper uses advertisers rather than non-advertisers, "just like airlines created frequent flier programs to take care of their best customers. . . . We have to be conscious of who pays our mortgages and who makes our car payments and who puts our kids through school.

"But I don't think at any time the editorial product has been compromised," Green says. "Legitimate stories get covered and played."

Yes, but. . . .

Last summer, when Gianni Versace, the Italian fashion designer, was murdered, the Sun Times assigned reporter Stephanie Zimmerman to write about the impact of his death on local sales of the designer clothing and other merchandise that carries his name.

Zimmerman wrote that Versace's death was "bringing . . . shoppers into the stores," and she mentioned several of those stores--including, according to other reporters at the paper, Neiman Marcus, the city's largest purveyor of Versace clothing.

But when Zimmerman's story appeared, it contained no mention of Neiman Marcus.

The apparent reason: Neiman Marcus doesn't advertise in the Sun Times.

Zimmerman declines to discuss the incident other than to say that Neiman Marcus was not originally in the first paragraph of her story, and Green says he never heard about it at all until a Los Angeles Times reporter queried him. Green's boss, Nigel Wade, editor of the Sun Times, says he too, was unaware of the incident, and he insists that if Neiman Marcus was excised from Zimmerman's story, it was done "in the normal editing process, not as a matter of policy."

But other reporters at the paper remember discussions about Neiman Marcus not being an advertiser--and Zimmerman's complaints about the deletion of the store from her story--and they say it's the sort of thing that happens frequently at their paper.

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