Management blinks; Guild wins a round

Dateline: Sun 24 Dec 2006

The Indianapolis Business Journal continues to investigate the ongoing troubles at the Indianapolis Star. In the new IBJ, staff writer Anthony Schoettle reports that the union prevailed last week, for now, against management's plan to force news staffers write advertorial copy.

Advertorial copy, for those mercifully not in the know, is the catch phrase for articles or stories that are built around ads. An advertiser may agree to buy space in a publication, with the understanding that the publication will write a favorable piece about the advertiser's business or products or services involved --- basically promotional material. Typically, magazines and newspapers label that material "advertorial" and mark it as such.

In what many say is an unprecedented move, the Star's bosses -- Star vice president Ali Zoibi and Star managing editor Dennis Ryerson -- had cooked up a scheme in which news staffers -- reporters, copy editors, graphic artists -- would be assigned to write advertorial copy. Normally, such copy is written by writers not in the newsroom but in marketing or promotions departments. They are specifically hired to do that job.

The newspaper Guild strenuously objected to the plan.

Zoibi took his fight to the newsroom (what the Star now calls the information center). After meeting with Guild officers about management's proposal, and hearing their objections, he sent out a memo to the staff. The email was addressed to the Guild and was sharply critical of its position:

"We recently met with you and three other Guild representatives to invite you to join with us, as a cooperative partner, as we work to change our business model. Quite frankly we were expecting a quick and supportive, "yes" given what our future will likely be without these changes.

"Despite repeated requests to join us as we implement changes to benefit all employees, the Guild insists on knowing every detail of a plan that must, by definition, be fluid. We explained to you that we don't have all the answers now but one thing is for certain. We will make these changes with or without your assistance."

As has already been reported here and elsewhere, Zoibi's heavy-handed tactics backfired when the memo ended up on the Poynter Institute's web page.

Several journalism professors are quoted in the IBJ about the wrongness of management's plan:

" 'The proposal that editorial staffers write advertorials is 100-percent wrong," said Ray Begovich, Franklin College journalism professor. "It breaks one of the essential contracts a news-gathering agency has with its audience. The contract is that anything that looks like news or is produced by the news staff should not be paid for."

"Begovich said the practice of having journalists write advertisements is occasionally seen in small markets where the staff is stretched especially thin, but 'there's no excuse for this from a metro daily.'

"That Ryerson might allow this to happen is even more 'stunning,' said IUPUI's (Jim) Brown. (associate dean at the IUPUI School of Journalism).

" 'This goes beyond ethics," Begovich said. "It's good business to keep a firm wall between advertising and editorial. If the public feels the integrity of a newspaper has dropped, that can hurt circulation and that hurts ad sales.

" 'News copy is powerful because it has an unbiased objectivity to it. That's why some advertisers try to make ads that look like news copy.' "

As with any Gannett story, there is a bottom line.

" refused to rule out eventually raising the issue again," Schoettle reports.

This won't go away. The Guild is going to have to strap on its leather balls, because these bosses are ruthless.



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