With political season rolling around, we published a reminder of our policies in Wednesday’s paper. On the heels of that, a couple of people asked for clarification on how we deal with business news.
Advertising revenue is the life support system that keeps newspapers alive. Without this source of income, newspapers could not survive, because they couldn’t pay their utility bills, much less employee salaries.
The system works, because businesses need publicity to promote their products and services, and when people buy the paper to get the news, they also see the ads.
Businesses must be frugal, so they’ll take any free publicity they can get. But papers must draw a line on freebies, because if businesses can always get free space in the “newshole,” they won’t pay for advertising – and when that happens, newspapers die. This is bad for communities, because healthy communities have healthy media outlets. And it’s bad for the public in general, because without newspapers, there are no “watchdogs” to keep an eye on things.
The line between advertising and editorial content is blurry at times. Many papers produce special supplements wherein clients who buy ads are offered free “advertorial” space, which looks like “news” but is really a public relations tool for the client. Also, since small papers rely so heavily on support from their communities, they tend to make more exceptions for businesses that, in turn, support the newspapers.
So if a paper has the “space” in its newshole to do so, it may publish press releases from advertisers that would be of general interest to readers. This does not mean an advertiser can control editorial content. Indeed, attempts to do so create a serious ethical dilemma.
Not only can a newspaper not give carte blanche to even its best advertisers to run press releases anytime, it cannot promise to withhold negative news about clients or their family and friends. Doing so is detrimental for everyone involved.
Let’s say Joe Blow, owner of Woebegone Widgets, is one of the best advertisers for a small-town paper, the Daily Bugle. One day, Joe’s son Sam is arrested for meth possession. Joe calls the Bugle to demand it not print the news of Sam’s bust, and the editor accedes to Joe’s wishes. But news of the bust leaks out, anyway, and the bigger newspaper in the next county gets the story.
Not only has Joe failed to keep the information of Sam’s bust secret, he’s hurt his own reputation for trying to do so, and he’s damaged the Bugle’s standing, perhaps irreparably. So while Woebegone Widgets may continue to advertise with the Bugle, other businesses will drop out, and subscribers – disgusted by the Bugle’s suppression of the meth bust – will drop out as well. And those same former advertisers and readers will likely stop buying widgets from Woebegone.
Businesses sometimes fail to consider that newspaper employees are customers, too; those who work for the now-discredited Bugle are likely to boycott Woebegone, and so will their family members and friends.
Another thing we won’t do is publish lengthy thank-you notes as letters to the editor, mainly because for years, churches and organizations would promise “free publicity” in the paper to businesses that donated to their causes, and the businesses would decline to advertise because of the “free publicity.” This was always done without our consent, so we had to develop a policy.
If individuals or groups want to thank businesses, they may buy a thank-you ad, or we will publish a generic thank-you letter that doesn’t name specific businesses. In a case where one businesses goes above and beyond the call of duty, we might elect to allow a letter, or mention in a story.
We will run press releases from any local business on our Sunday Business page, provided the information is geared more toward reader interest than promoting the business. Some items may wind up on a Living or Education page, at the discretion of the news staff. Some examples of “legitimate” news items that spotlight a business:
• The winner of a $10,000 drawing held by a local business.
• In a service-related business, such as a for-profit dance or music school, news of students who win individual awards, or are presenting concerts or recitals. (This would be of general interest because the focus is on the students rather than the business.)
• Major donations to local charities (with emphasis on “major”).
• Partnerships and sponsorships with schools, charities or other businesses as part of community events or projects that are not necessarily designed for individual profits. (For instance, top contributors to the Snowflake ‘11 ice rink product were spotlighted; on the other hand, donors to a flea market of a particular church would not be of general interest.)
• Sourcing for staff-written feature stories. When Press staff members need sources from the business community, they will first turn to those with which we have a relationship, and then to others that may have a pertinent contribution to the topic. (We can’t use every related business every time we do a story, so we take turns.)
• News of a business closure, change of ownership, major new product line or service, a fire, burglary, or criminal allegations against the business or an employee. Some of these may appear on the front page. Changes in top management would also be news, but likely for the business page. (Routine promotions or hires below the top level, or personnel honors, such as Employee of the Month, are not really news; many businesses buy ads to spotlight such public relations items.)
Businesses that want more information on what constitutes “news” can call our copy editor, Kolby Paxton.
Businesses that want to learn how they can most effectively promote themselves on a long-term basis should call our ad manager, Pam Hutson.