Home > Ethics > Former editor says advertisers have unethical influence on editorial at Kelowna daily

Former editor says advertisers have unethical influence on editorial at Kelowna daily

November 23, 2011

On Wednesday, J-Source posted a juicy account by Micah Luxen, the former editor of the Westside Weekly (a Kelowna Daily Courier regional supplement), in which she says she resigned from the paper due to the unseemly influence advertisers had on editorial.

The accusations are backed up by recordings made of meetings with KDC managing editor Jon Manchester, and of copies of the emails.

Manchester responds to the accusations.

Read the whole thing here.

Some of the juiciest stuff from Luxen’s first-person account:

“Businesses help us, so we help them,” [publisher Terry] Armstrong told me. I had thought going in that newspapers were about serving the community, not serving the highest bidder for the sake of profits. Nevertheless, Armstrong wanted good stories about businesses that advertised in the paper.

Soon after I started at the Courier in 2009, an email memo was sent down through Manchester.

Andre Martin, general manager at ThePenticton Herald [ed. note: the Courier’s sister paper], wrote on Sept. 28:

“Gents: it would be my preference that we do NOT report on any activities at Apex [Mountain Resort] this season. I know our readers should know when the ski hill opens etc. but they continue to ignore any advertising requests. [General manager James] Shalman cancelled meetings the day before, was never available to hear a pitch etc., yet he can get ads into the Western and on the radio last week…. It would seem in these tough times we should look after those (as much as possible) who believe in us. A quick search produced eight stories about Apex this past spring and not a nickel in advertising revenue. Let me know your thoughts.”

Armstrong responded: “Agreed.”

On dwindling resources due to the ownership of former Conrad Black partner David Radler:

Staff didn’t like it; of the 10 editors, five reporters and one photographer who make up the editorial department at The Courier, four quit during my time at the paper, and I understood that morale was a factor in their doing so. Others grumbled under their breath – nothing changed.

Manchester asked Luxen to run a vet column by a future advertiser. She wondered if she was allowed to say no, or if it was an order handed down from advertising:

He said, “I’m telling you we’re running it.… They’re making money off it, and it’s, like, wait a minute, if we told the guy we don’t want to run it then maybe he’d be pissed off and not spend money with us.”

While maintaining there was no conflict of interest, he threw in: “As distasteful as it is, that’s part of the media business.”

Luxen threatened to quit if this was going to be the attitude, and Manchester let her bite the bullet. She now works as a freelance writer in Toronto. While some at the paper hoped that the resignation would send a message. Luxen writes:

“Three days later, Manchester wrote a full-page story on Melcor Developments, a major advertiser with The Courier. It was one of just a handful of stories he’d written during my term – perhaps just another instance of a great story with coincidental ties to advertising.

I can’t hold Radler and his managers accountable, but I thought I should at least hold myself accountable.

Manchester was given the opportunity to respond.

He said that advertising reps have connections in the community and often have legitimate story ideas.

All ideas, assignments and submitted content (on which community newspapers everywhere are relying more and more in an effort to get “hyperlocal”) is held to the same standard. If an idea comes by way of the ad department, it is made clear from the beginning that no promises are made. If we are interested in the content, we’ll judge its merits like any other submission. Many tips and submissions from outside the editorial department result in no further action or coverage. Some do make the grade. Others have gone on to become some of our most popular columnists.

We most certainly do not “sell” editorial coverage, and to have one’s ethics questioned by a junior employee who secretly recorded conversations over a great length of time does call into question her own motivation. Being quoted out of context and made the victim of a hatchet job after that employee chose to leave the company doesn’t say much about one’s ethics either.

And, finally, to be given an ultimatum by an employee leaves a department head no realistic choice but to allow them to seal their own fate.

As for requests from advertising reps for coverage of their clients, Manchester said that it’s his job to “deflect and filter those requests”

So…this is interesting. Leave a comment below, especially if you work at the Courier.

Here’s my take:

I’m not going to get into the he said-she said elements of this, but calling out the reporter a “junior employee” is taking the easy way out for the simple reason that it’s precisely because of her problems with the newsroom ethics that means Luxen will never hold a more senior rank at the paper.

And questioning her motives is also probably wrong. There are lots of stories of community reporters and editors being fired because they refuse to kowtow to advertisers. If I’m pushing back against advertisers at my paper, if I have a suspicion I’ll be fired or forced to resign because of that, and if I already have a tape recorder sitting at my desk, I’d be foolish not to gather evidence for whatever may come down the line. (I’ve never been in such a situation, however).

I think the Apex memo from Martin gives the best indication of the advertiser-editorial climate. And it clearly shows that advertising does influence editorial.

This raises a couple more general points:

Editors at many papers ARE filters for requests by the ad departments. And it’s likely that they can’t shoot them all down. As far as I can tell, it’s one of the major bummers of being an editor at certain papers. But, if you have a publisher who acknowledges the problems with advertising-influenced editorial—problems that include the whole slippery slope thing of finding it difficult to draw a line at a certain point—then the advertising reps themselves will start becoming the filter. I know this. I’ve seen it in action. I’ve heard an advertising rep use the term “Chinese wall.” And for a journalist, that’s music to one’s ears.

Of course, the problem is that publishers with advertising backgrounds often don’t give a fuck about a paper’s editorial. And they ignore the long-term deleterious effect that meshing advertising and editorial can have on a paper’s reputation and profitability. But what are you going to do? If the problem lies with publishers, then the people with the power to change things are the publishers’ bosses, which, worryingly, puts several layers of management between lower-level reporters and editors like Luxen, and the people who control their fate.

I’m sorry that I can’t find a silver lining to this sad story. Leave a comment below anyways.

UPDATE: I should have said in my original post that I have a huge amount of respect for what Luxen did. To martyr’s one job in the name of editorial independence is, in my books, a noble act and requires more guts than most reporters, including myself, probably have. She has little to gain by writing about it, but it’s an issue that needs exposure and she has possibly taken a hit for her future employment prospects to reveal how the sausage gets made.

  1. Anon
    December 3, 2011 at 10:19 am

    This goes on at larger papers. For example, did you know at The Edmonton Journal, Hockey Canada is paying the paper $10,000 to produce a video for the World Junior Hockey Chamionships?

    Even though the paper is a sponsor of the event, doesn’t it seem unethical that the paper should be taking money from them to produce a video? Especially when there are better places to get professional quality videos done?

    Can you seen The Journal EVER reporting something that would hurt their relationship with Hockey Canada?

    Also, the car reviews? Never, ever, ever will there be an honest assessment of a car because if you did, advertisers would pull their advertising. They’ve threatened that in the past.

  2. Anonymous
    November 24, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    At some papers I’ve worked at where not running, let’s say “soft business” stories was not an option (for various reasons) I generally just withheld byline on everything I wasn’t completely comfortable with. Of course, my newsroom was small enough that if I saw it had been left in on a proof I could go into indesign and replace my name with Staff Writer.

    Not a perfect solution, but I wonder is this an option in a bigger paper? Can’t remember every trying it at any of the dailies I worked for, where the evening editor and I wouldn’t always see each other and I never saw the pages before press…

  3. MBA AOK
    November 23, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    There’s nothing new here. What is new is someone actually standing up and calling out her editor and paper’s management for kowtowing to advertisers.
    What mystifies me, though, is how entrenched this practice has become in the newspaper industry, especially at the community level; if I’m a shrewd business looking to get the word out about my product or service and the local paper is willing to do that for free, why would I ever want to pay them money for advertising space. It’s like the old adage, why buy the milk if the cow gives it to you for free?
    If a paper is willing to give me free editorial space or coverage in exchange for my ad dollars, that tells me I’m paying too much for my ad space because the value that paper puts on their space is actually zero since they seem so willing to give it away.
    Readers aren’t stupid, nor are advertisers. Using editorial coverage to coddle advertisers or potential advertisers doesn’t respect readers and it doesn’t respect advertisers. If I”m producing a newspaper that is valued by readers, then that has a real monetary value to advertisers.

  4. November 23, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    If you read the original before 5:10 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, please note that I added an additional comment.

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