In his "City Beat" column last week, John Branston reported on a new policy at The Commercial Appeal regarding advertiser sponsorship of news and features. Editor Chris Peck calls it "monetizing content." Journalists around the country — and in the CA newsroom — are calling it a bad idea.
Posted online with John's column at MemphisFlyer.com is an internal memo from CA management outlining the new policy. Here's a sample: "Newspapers are looking for new ways to attach ads in print and online to specific stories, features, and sections. This represents a marked change from past practices. No longer are there thick, inpenetrable walls between newsroom, advertising, and circulation departments. Today ... [we] understand that our content is what makes us valuable and we want to 'put a meter' on that value."
The sound you hear is that of editors spinning in their grave.
I'm not going to pretend that editors never have to deal with helping to generate revenue. At the Flyer, we run lots of "special sections" — dining guides, gift guides, etc. — in the hopes that advertisers will buy ads because the content is relevant to their business. But that's quite different than putting a logo from, say, Malco Theatres, in the middle of Chris Herrington's film column. Such a move would call into question Chris' ability to impartially review a movie.
The CA now puts a logo from Boyle Investments and a "sponsored by" line in Amos Maki's "Done Deals" column in the Sunday paper. Does the logo alter Maki's ability to write the column objectively? Probably not. But it gives the appearance that journalism is for sale, and it devalues his work.
The issue drew national attention from journalism trade websites such as Editor & Publisher and others last week. Peck responded at length to E&P, saying future sponsorships are probable, but they would not likely be attached to what he termed "high-end pieces of journalism." (I bet that makes Maki feel good.)
But why hasn't Peck come clean with his own readers about this policy? What's "high end" journalism? What's "low end"? And how can the reader tell the difference? He's got a weekly column, after all.
Maybe he's waiting to find a sponsor for it.
It's deep in a November night in Memphis, and I'm awakened by rain. It's coming down hard, sounding like a million pebbles hitting the roof. The gutter I've been meaning to clean is overflowing outside the bedroom window. A flash of lightning illuminates the room, and I do what I've done since I was a boy: count the seconds 'til the thunder rolls. I get almost to 10 before I hear a distant rumble. Two miles or so. Someone else's lightning ...
In the 14 years I've been the Flyer editor, I've gotten lots of hate mail. It mostly used to come in envelopes filled with pages of scrawled handwriting. I read them and put them in the wastebasket, chalking it up as a natural by-product of writing for a liberal paper in the conservative South. Lately, the angry folks have switched to email, and it comes in waves ...