Running pro-business letter can lead to disastrous consequences

The Inlander/May 16, 2005

A letter arrives at a newspaper office, heaping great compliments about the excellent customer service at a local business. Better yet, the business is the hometown grocery store, the newspaper’s largest advertiser.

Most editors would seize the opportunity to publish such a feel-good letter without a second thought. But they shouldn’t proceed without examining all the consequences. First and foremost, they must ask themselves: What if the letter prompts a rebuttal from a customer who’s had a sour experience at the same store? Will that letter be published?

Many news items fall under the definition of sensitive and challenging subjects and require delicate handling. The stories may not be as emotionally charged as a suicide report, but they still generate reaction. Many of the items, such as business news, are standard fare of community journalism.

How many times have you heard the comment on the street: “You won’t read that in the newspaper. After all, it’s about one of the paper’s biggest advertisers.” Most editors can readily attest that nothing draws the attention of publishers quicker than customers who threaten to take their business elsewhere if something gets into print.

Advertiser ultimatums and the resulting predicaments cannot be minimized, especially at small-town newspapers. Editors are right to weigh requests. But news decisions should be made within the context of underlying policies, and guidelines should be in writing. Owners and publishers also must think of repercussions to the credibility of their products if news decisions are altered on the basis of whom instead of what is the subject.

Potential collisions among news/advertising interests are numerous, beginning with the example of letters as noted above.

Being a referee for these decisions can be tricky. Consider a big-box retailer seeking to locate in smaller communities, an increasingly common scenario. Discussing the merits of the proposal inevitably results in a debate about existing stores — their merchandise, their prices and their service. To squelch all comments would be wrong. But editors must be careful that the public exchange focuses on broad issues and does not deteriorate into a broad denigration of existing or prospective merchants.

As illustrated by these examples, most everyone is eager to share what’s considered good news, but reluctant to talk about bad news. Few editors would be surprised by the following set of circumstances.

Nearly 50 employees will be out of jobs after an insurance company, with headquarters in another state, announced the closing of its local office. The parent company, when contacted by a reporter, grudgingly released information but never issued a press release. In contrast, the same company met with the local news staff when it originally purchased the hometown business and talked about a bright future.

Restricted access to news, however, does not make many events any less newsworthy. Indeed, it’s arguable that news about large and small employers has even greater meaning in smaller communities than a directive issued by City Hall. After all, it’s news about friends, neighbors and jobs.

Editors will have better luck prying bad news from a company if newspapers consistently provide solid coverage of local business. In that regard, there should be clear understanding — both among news and advertising staffs, and with the customers — what’s legitimately a news story and what’s strictly a promotion.

A restaurant gets new owners. That’s news. The same restaurant issues a press release about the popularity of its special home-made soup. That’s an advertisement.

An investment firm relocates. That’s news. The company announces a new line of annuities. That’s an ad.

A retailer opens in town. That’s news. The same merchant sends press releases about grand openings and successive anniversary sales. Those are ads.

Editors can face the same daunting challenges on both internal and external fronts in delineating what’s news and what’s advertising. Conflicts between news and advertising always will flare. Resolving differences will be easier if newspapers develop policies endorsed by both news and advertising departments.

Editors might have to deliver their most persuasive arguments to publishers. Owners and publishers must understand the importance for consistency and fairness in news coverage. They must participate at the ground level when newsrooms develop news policies, and especially for those policies concerning coverage of sensitive and challenging topics.

Not all policies will have unanimous approval within the office. Differences of opinion will guarantee that policies will be under continual review, which only can strengthen decision-making.

At the same time, those individuals who explain and implement policies must be of a united front when interacting with readers. The message must be shared and endorsed by everyone, beginning with top management.

News and advertising departments must operate closely — but independently. If customers purchase an ad, they should expect professional and courteous services and a good return on their investments.

But there should be no link between how much advertisers spend — or how influential particular individuals may be in a community — and how much news coverage their corresponding businesses receive or their missteps receive.

Just as advertisers are entitled to courteous service by their ad representatives, they should expect and receive from editors a courteous and clear explanation of the separation between news and advertising.