A Case of Journalistic Pay to Play?

Plans for a curious joint advertising/editorial venture between the Albuquerque Journal and the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce are raising questions about the paper’s ability to cover the business community objectively.

In addition to causing consternation in the business community, the alliance also raises questions about whether it violates basic journalistic principles  – specifically, whether it compromises the sacred separation that is supposed to exist between an objective newspaper’s editorial content and its advertising.

Here are the details:  On July 13, the chamber will publish a quarterly report called “Business Plan” in the “A” section of the Albuquerque Journal.  In addition, beginning on July 27, the chamber will run a full-page “Business Plan” report every other week in the Journal’s Business Outlook.

In a letter to its members, the chamber pitches the new Journal sections as  “exciting new advertising opportunities” and notes that buying ads will give them access to the “Journal’s Average Weekday Statewide Readership of 260,925!”

Rates for the special section ads were not listed. It is also not clear whether the Journal or the Chamber of Commerce will write and edit content for the sections.

In 1999, a similar advertising/special section arrangement between the Los Angeles Times and the Staples Center caused a titanic uproar in the journalism world.  More than 300 Los Angeles Times employees – embarrassed at their editors’ breach of journalism ethics – signed a petition calling for an internal investigation into the arrangement.

The fallout from the incident and the widespread condemnation from other journalists later caused Times Mirror CEO Mark Willes to resign in disgrace.

The Chairman’s Table

According to the letter, chamber members who place ads in the Journal sections will become members of a new group called the “Chairman’s Table,” which the chamber says will “provide prominent recognition of companies which provide annual financial resources leading to the continued success” of the chamber.

According to the letter, Chairman’s Table members will agree to sponsor a program or event or advertise in the quarterly Business Plan in the Albuquerque Journal, or in the bi-monthly editions of the Business Plan in the Business Outlook. In exchange, Chairman’s Table members will get access to exclusive invitation-only events, including bi-annual events with the former board chamber chairman where they will receive “special updates on timely and current issues facing the business community.”

The coziness of the arrangement between the state’s largest paper and the city’s biggest business group is angering some chamber members, who say it seems to give new meaning to the concept of pay to play.

One business owner who chooses to remain anonymous said the chamber told her to “pick up her membership check” when she raised objections to buying a Journal ad.  Other chamber members are wondering: Does this mean all chamber members who don’t agree to buy Journal ads will be asked to leave?  Will chamber members be pressured to advertise in the special sections?

In addition, this breach of journalism’s most sacred separation raises so many journalistic questions. Will chamber members who decline to buy ads for the new sections be denied stories or be covered negatively in the Journal? Will businesses that do buy ads get better coverage?

What if a negative story emerges about an advertiser – will readers of the Journal get the full story? Will the Journal do puff pieces on those who do advertise – and will readers know the difference?

The whole episode seems similar to another recent breach of journalistic ethics that made the news.

In a effort to raise money for her paper, Washington Post publisher Katherine Weymouth recently offered to give  lobbyists, members of Congress, and Administration officials  direct access to the paper’s editorial staff during special off-the-record  “salons” at her home. Sponsoring a salon would cost $25,000 – $50,000.

In the face of a huge outrage over whether the officials would in essence be “buying” access to reporters, Weymouth dropped those plans.

Hard economic times or not, such financial arrangements between newspapers and sources are wrong. Getting into bed with advertisers does a disservice to the business community and to journalism ethics. The Journal and the Chamber should be ashamed.

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2 Responses

  1. Any questions about whether large advertisers get special treatment from the Journal, are answered with a look at the relationship between the Journal and one of its larger advertisers, the Albuquerque Public Schools.

    There are at least three scandals brewing surrounding audits, role modeling, and the cover up of felony criminal misconduct, that the Journal steadfastly refuses to investigate and report upon.

    There really is no question about whether one can buy preferential treatment from the Journal.

  2. […] adhere more to economic realities than “duty” these days. (Although this week’s revelation that the Journal is partnering with Chamber of Commerce businesses indicates some businesses might […]

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