News - Punching holes in the wall

AJC memo tailors news to ads

In the navel-gazing world of journalism, much is made of the “wall” that exists between a newspaper’s advertising department and its newsroom. The concept is simple: The way a newspaper covers its community shall never be influenced by advertisers. Hence, the wall.

Throughout the industry, though, that wall has become as porous as Slobodan Milosevic’s security detail. And last Wednesday at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the wall took a punch in the form of a memo written by Executive Editor John Walter. At issue was a full page of ads set to run on page 7 of the next day’s Living section. The ads were a kind of paid directory of summer camps throughout the Southeast. Nothing unusual about that.

What was unusual was Walter’s “last-minute brainstorm” outlined in a memo to editors in the Living section.

“Can we find a wire story that even REMOTELY [caps his] touches on the camping experience?” he asked. “You find an interesting theme story about families on the front of Living that jumps [to an inside page], and are pleased to see all those camp ads right there.”

Now, newspapers (including this one) all the time produce special “themed” sections — say, a summer guide or a bridal section — then sell ads based on what that subject is. In such cases, the advertisers (should) know only the subject of the section, not the individual content of stories. Otherwise, advertisers might be in a position to influence what readers get to know by, say, threatening to pull out of the paper if they don’t like a story or arguing for a certain slant.

Walter’s suggestion turns that practice on its head. He was trolling for a story that might draw the reader toward advertisements that were already in place. And he hit pay dirt. The next day, tucked in the bottom right corner of the Living section cover, was a wire story topped with the promotional-sounding headline: “Don’t wait: Best camps fill up fast.” The story continued on to page 6 of the section, facing a full page of ads for summer camps.

Walter sees no problem with the practice. Asked if he agreed that his memo could have created at least the appearance that advertising has influenced news content, he is adamant. “I absolutely disagree,” he says. “If it’s appropriately done, it’s not a conflict of interest.”

It’s not like the paper published a story to bolster one advertiser, he says. Rather, the paper found a wire story that fits logically and thematically with the ads that ran next to it. And it was a timely story, he says, made more timely by the ads that ran that day.

“We aren’t shy about packaging the newspaper as a whole,” he says, “in a way that makes sense to the reader.”

Maybe. But the fact remains: Had those ads not run that day, that story would never have appeared. And the story the staff did select was a boosterish piece written with the notion that sending your kid to camp was a foregone conclusion.

“It strikes me as a little strange,” says Michael Hoyt, Columbia Journalism Review editor. “It’s not right up there with the capital crimes of our age. But it does have a slight feel of the tail wagging the dog. ... You sort of wish that editorial was in the driver’s seat.”??

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