Allowing an advertiser to call the shots
It was “only” a picture. Was it so wrong to help the newspaper’s advertisers by making sure it featured their products?
By Dave Wright
Dave Wright was editor of Let’s Play Hockey, a Twin Cities hockey weekly. He now works as a regional editor for TV Guide.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 4 (July 1990), p. 2.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
Just how far does one go to please an advertiser? For publications like The New York Times or Sports Illustrated, it’s an easy call. If the advertiser doesn’t like something, well, there are other advertisers waiting in line. But what about the smaller paper or weekly that doesn’t have advertisers queueing up? Are the rules the same? Should they be?
In January, 1989, I was editing a small hockey weekly in the Twin Cities, Let’s Play Hockey. The paper, which has been in business for 18 years, covered the hockey scene in Minnesota, concentrating on youth hockey. Now, understand that youth hockey is close to a religion in Minnesota. (About 100,000 attend the state high school tournament every year, for example.)
A regular feature of the paper is a cover picture. The picture doesn’t necessarily lead to a story inside the paper.
My photographer, Linda Cullen, came in with a shot of a game being played outside. The picture had all the desired elements — youths hacking away and having a good time, a puck, the right sun balances, etc. The picture ran on the cover and I thought little of it. That is, until the publisher,
Doug Johnson, called me into his office. He had the hockey picture cover sitting on his desk.
“What’s wrong with this picture?” Johnson asked, pointing to it.
I looked hard.
Did we misidentify a player? Nope.
Did we get the names of the teams wrong? Nope.
Too many shadows? Nope.
Johnson tapped the picture. “Look again.”
“I just don’t see the problem,” I said.
“It’s the sticks,” he said. “They’re the wrong kind. They’re Titan sticks. Titan doesn’t advertise with us. Christian Brothers is really mad and is threatening to cancel their account.”
Christian Brothers is a well-known stick company in northern Minnesota. It has run an ad on the cover of the paper from the first day of publication.
I looked at the picture again. It was difficult to read many of the stick names but the Titan stick did stand out.
But the publisher wasn’t done. He pointed to the helmets. They were the wrong kind, too. “We have to help our advertisers,” Johnson said. “We can’t go around showing pictures of brands of equipment that don’t advertise with us.”
“Wait a minute,” I replied. “You can’t manufacture the news. A picture can’t be manufactured like that.”
“We’re a small paper,” he said. “You have to compromise sometimes. After all, it’s only a picture.”
A few days later, Johnson told Linda to shoot a certain college player who was wearing the proper helmet, using the right stick, skates, etc. She didn’t, and to the credit of the publisher, he said nothing.
The uneasy year went on. At the end of the year, we parted company. At the end of the most recent season, he let his second editor go, saying, “Editors are a luxury.”
In the last year I’ve often thought about the picture incident. Had I been unrealistic? A fifty dollar ad in a small weekly can actually mean more than a thousand dollar ad to a daily.
But does that give the advertiser the right to try to dictate the news?
I don’t think so.
The advertiser can argue for best placement available. And, that the more the ad runs, the better the ad should look or, maybe, the better the discount. There’s nothing wrong with any of these.
I’m not holding my nose up in the air and declaring that newspapers are above making money, but it gets down to a question of public trust. We abuse it when we allow an advertiser to determine what the reader sees even if it’s a picture on the front page of a hockey weekly.
The advertiser has the right to express an opinion, but the editor must have the right to reject it. The editor cannot let decisions regarding money stand in the way of a story. Maybe that’s easier for an editor to say because rarely does one have money behind a news operation.
If the publisher wants to overrule the editor, that’s his call. But the publisher should remember this: Once you have given in to an advertiser, you have set a precedent that will be hard to change.