News coverage isolated from other departments

The Minnesota Daily is callous, insensitive, sensationalistic and crude. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either an extra-crunchy liberal rag or a mouthpiece of cautious conservatism.
These are a few of the sentiments expressed by Daily readers in recent weeks.
While few reporters, editors, columnists or cartoonists like being criticized, most of them appreciate feedback from readers. Most Daily staffers are accustomed to dealing with criticism. But like everyone else, journalists don’t like being blamed for things they can’t control.
Most people are not aware of just how atomized work is at a daily newspaper. Stories, photos, cartoons, editorials and ads are produced by different departments that don’t always review what the other is doing.
The result is that readers target people for criticism who had nothing to do with the item in question.
This is most clearly the case with the staff-written editorials. People assume editorials, because they are often considered “the voice” of the paper, are written with the approval and input of the whole Daily staff. In truth, only four people (six during the regular school year) are involved with the shaping of editorials.
The editorials are written by a board consisting of the editorial board editor, two board members (who do not write news stories) and the editor in chief, who sits on the board but does not write editorials.
The board meets at least once per week and tries to map out editorials for upcoming issues. After they vote on what stance to take, one person writes the editorial, which is reviewed by the editorial page editor.
No votes are taken of the rest of the staff. No input is sought. No feedback is requested. In short, the opinions expressed in the editorial are those of the editorial board members and no one else.
As important as editorials are to newspapers, their benefits can be lost when they begin to skew the way people perceive the rest of the paper. The purpose of editorials is to get people to think and to provoke a response. But when people read editorials as if they are keys to understanding the hidden agendas and biases of staff writers, editorials can do more harm than good.
In this case, the readers need to recognize the separate function of editorials and not allow them to affect their perceptions of the Daily’s news.
In addition to the editorial board operating separately from the news department, the editorial “side” of the paper, which includes news and the editorial/opinion pages, operates separately from the advertising side.
If anyone doubts the value of this approach, consider this: An advertising salesperson for WDSI-TV in Chattanooga, Tenn., recently offered local businesses an unbelievable deal. For the low, low price of $15,000, he would guarantee that several “positive” stories featuring the paying businesses would be produced and broadcast on the station.
This “all-the-news-that’s-fit-to-buy” approach was apparently the brainchild of this single, rogue salesperson and was not endorsed by station managers. The salesperson no longer works for the station, and his plan was publicly criticized by the news staff of the Fox affiliate. Local business leaders were also bothered by the solicitation and were the first to tip off station managers.
A similar instance occurred recently in Australia. There, radio broadcaster John Laws has been accused of accepting a $1.2 million payoff from several Australian banks to stop criticizing the banks on his radio show. The case is now being investigated by the Australian Broadcasting Authority.
It’s hard to believe that anyone would dare make such a blatant quid pro quo proposition. We should take some comfort in the rarity of such conspicuous manipulations. At the same time, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that less subtle influences are occasionally exerted by people outside the newsroom.
Advertisers are constantly putting pressure on news organizations, especially magazines, whose separation between news and advertising is not as stark as it is at the Daily.
Two years ago, Chrysler Corporation, which spends millions of dollars for ads in dozens of magazines, issued a policy requiring that it “be alerted in advance of any and all editorial content that encompasses sexual, political or social issues or any editorial content that may be construed as provocative or offensive.” Translation: Chrysler must be allowed to review all editorial content prior to publication.
This is an absurd expectation and one that essentially gives an editor’s pen to a group of prudish corporate flacks. The risks to the integrity of the editorial product are obvious. Similar influences are exerted by the cosmetics industry over the content of fashion magazines, for example.
We shouldn’t suppose that newspapers are exempt from these pressures. Every news organization has its sacred cow. One can imagine the Chicago Tribune being more cautious in its investigations of Marshall Fields than it would be of the Dekalb corporation, a decidedly less vital Tribune advertiser.
Fortunately, the Daily has been able to avoid many of those sticky ethical entanglements by creating a clear separation between news and advertising. That is the first step — and the most important step — in keeping the news product free from advertiser interference.
It probably helps that no one has yet offered the Daily $15,000 to keep quiet.

Erik Ugland’s column appears on alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments to [email protected]