Monday, April 27, 2009

Stop the Presses

"HE who pays the piper, calls the tune."

Words of wisdom from centuries past still ring true.

If you don't believe it, ask Rick Wagoner, former CEO of General Motors.

The American public paid this particular piper billions in taxpayer dollars to keep his business afloat.

When he floundered, the public, through its president, called the tune. It was entitled "Hit the Road, Jack."

There is a place, however, where the piper adage doesn't always play. And you're looking it at.

In the news business, the advertising department, which pays the bills, not only doesn't call the tune - its members aren't allowed in the same room with the piper.

Reporters and editors determine content. No advertising types allowed. The news columns are not for sale.

Would you want coverage of the Wall Street crisis compromised or surpressed because banks and brokers buy ads in the paper? Would you want stories about salmonella-tainted food to go unreported because markets and restaurants spend a lot of money advertising in newspapers?

You get the point.

This has been holy writ since Ben Franklin was a copy boy.

But there is change in the wind.

If you didn't notice the dust-up at the Los Angeles Times recently, you missed what one Web site called the "defining moment in the waning days of newsprint."

With the blessing of the publisher (and none of the editors as far as I can tell), the Times printed a bought-and-paid-for story on its front page that was nothing more than a shill job for a new NBC television series.

It was ham-fisted, it was ugly and it was one of the most egregious violations of trust between a paper and its readers I've ever seen - and I worked at the Times for 33 years.

Worse, it was apparently done at the suggestion of the Times.

Several days later, the Times published another shill job, this time for a movie, that was made up to look like one of its sections.

I wonder if the revenue collected for these products offset the subscription cancellations that followed.

Times Publisher Eddy Hartenstein said he decided to run the NBC ad despite newsroom objections because he was trying to ensure that The Times could continue to operate.

"Because of the times that we're in, we have to look at all sorts of different - and some would say innovative - new solutions for our advertising clients," he said.

Whether readers knew this was advertising or not was beside the point, said Geneva Overholser, director of the school of journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication.

"Some people say readers are smart and they can tell the difference, but the fundamental concept here is deeply offensive," she told The New York Times.

"Readers don't want to be fooled, they don't like the notion that someone is attempting to deceive them."

All of us in the newspaper business are in survival mode. This paper is no stranger to furloughs, staff cutbacks and other attempts to keep our heads above water.

But, to paraphrase another saying, what good does it do to sell advertising and lose your soul?

Advertisers won't advertise if there are no readers left. And there will be no readers left if they don't believe in the integrity of the product.

I hope the Times' foray into deception is not a trend. The real path to survival for newspapers is a great leap forward.

While print will survive in some form, the industry needs to devote all its energies into producing a top-rate digital product. If not, it's just trying to sell buggywhips to astronauts.

Digital journalism is the answer not just because it's trendy but because it can do the job better than print.

Unlike TV and radio, which are stuck with people reading out loud, customers of digital journalism will get the best of all media forms, according to author and journalist Mark Bowden.

They can wade into any story that attracts them as deeply as they wish. Readers will gravitate toward prose, while those who prefer sounds and images can simply watch and listen. The digital report will not be locked into the strict chronological format of TV and radio news, but will be much more like a newspaper, which permits you to begin with sports and weather, if you wish, or go right to the editorials or comics.

Bottom line: More people read the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times online than in print.

Bottom line Part II: My morning routine now consists of reading this paper and the Times with my first cup of coffee in the morning.

With the second, I scan the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, CNBC and whatever outlet strikes my fancy via my laptop on the kitchen table.

If this old dog can learn that new trick, so can everyone else.

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