By: Allan Wolper
The top news officials at the Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal are denying a widespread report that the paper encouraged its reporters and editors to sell ads or subscriptions as a way to increase their paychecks.
The story was first reported March 31 by Pierre Tristam, editor of FlaglerLive.com, a website that covers the Palm Coast in Flagler County, Florida.
Tristam, relying on unnamed newsroom sources whom he said he could not identify because it would cost them their jobs, wrote that Michael Redding, CEO and publisher of the News-Journal, told his journalists they would get paid commissions if they provided tips for the advertising and subscription departments that resulted in sales.
Reporters contacted by Editor & Publisher confirmed the existence of the newsroom incentive program but refused to identify themselves, saying they were fearful of management retribution.
Redding insists his reporters are not selling any ads or subscriptions and has told his editors in recent days that it was against company policy to do so. Asked if there was a written policy against it, he replied: “No but if you think it’s necessary, we’ll write one.”
He added, “If a reporter walked in my door and said he had just sold an ad or a subscription, I wouldn’t fire him, but I would say don’t you do that anymore.”
He said that none of his editors had the impression that their reporters were selling ads or being asked to. But editors who were at those meetings refused to be interviewed or make any kind of comment. One editor emailed E&P and said that he/she would not comment on the record, off the record, or on background.
Reporters told E&P that when they picked up their paychecks two weeks ago they were asked to take cards with subscription prices on them with room for their name (in case they made a sale) to hand out to potential readers. However, no one in the circulation department would talk to E&P.
Redding made his alleged comments six weeks ago at a meeting of employees he called to celebrate his first full year as publisher. He led a group of investors called Halifax Media that won a court fight to buy the News-Journal.
He said his PowerPoint remarks on circulation and advertising were aimed only at non-editorial employees. Reporters who were at the meeting insist that is not true.
“He looked at us (the reporters) and said, ‘if you think you are above selling, think again’,” said one, who asked to be quoted anonymously, again fearful of antagonizing management. “He believes that using reporters as salespeople is out-of-the-box thinking.
“Most of us weren’t outraged right away. But when we left the meeting, we realized that what he was suggesting was cheapening what we do for a living. No one said anything, though. People are just so desperate to hang onto their jobs. They didn’t want to deal with the whole ethical thing.”
The most curious example of the reluctance of the newsroom to be quoted involved Cory Lancaster, respected managing editor of the News-Journal. She refused to make any comment when first contacted, but after receiving a call from Pat Rice, the paper’s editor, and Redding, she telephoned E&P to read a prepared statement.
“Michael (Redding) and Pat (Rice) have reiterated that the newsroom staff is not being asked to sell advertising, nor should they,” she read. “The publisher has said that we can issue a written policy to that affect, but I don’t think that a policy is needed. They said it very clearly.”
Lancaster was at the meeting when Redding made his PowerPoint presentation. She declined, despite repeated questioning, to discuss or characterize the remarks Redding made at his alleged sales meeting.
Rice told me he was disappointed that E&P linked to the FlaglerLive.com article about the News-Journal without calling him or Redding to get their side of the story.
“No one in our newsroom is selling ads to anyone,” Rice said. “No one is doing anything unethical in our newsroom. To suggest that we would blur the line between the news and business side would be wrong.
“My standards are the same as yours. However, if someone asks a reporter the name of the person who is in charge of sales or circulation, then there is nothing wrong with giving someone that information.
“That’s simply good customer service. It is unfortunate that someone would suggest that we would ask a reporter to sell an ad,” Rice said.
Reporters, again asking to speak anonymously, reacted angrily when the remarks of their editors were read to them.
“We were told if you want extra money, you could do it by selling ads,” one of them said. “We didn’t feel any pressure. It wasn’t like they said ‘go door to door.’ But the message was simple: You can seek out people and get rewarded for it.”
The publisher said that Tristam’s approach to the story was unfair.
“He never gave me a chance to reply,” Redding said. “He just shot over an email right before he posted it with some questions.”
Tristam made this email available to E&P. It said, in part, that reporters “were insulted” and wondered whether Redding realized the “ethical implications” of allowing reporters and editors involved in the newsgathering process “to be seen as salesmen.”
Interestingly, Redding has not asked any publication that picked up the FlaglerLive.com article for a correction. In fact, he has not written a letter to the online publication itself, demanding a retraction, clarification, or correction – the prerequisite to a lawsuit – according to Tristam.
Redding, meanwhile, insisted that Tristam’s piece was never taken seriously. The Associated Press’ main bureau in Miami ignored the story, as did the Florida Press Association, the state’s publisher’s organization, and The Florida Press Club.
In fact, the FlaglerLive.com article might not have gotten the attention it received if it weren’t for an article by Jim Romenesko of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, one of the most influential media sites in the country.
The huge headline above Romenesko’s piece read like an editorial: “Daytona Beach paper rewards journalists for selling ads, subscriptions.”
Redding then issued this rejoinder: “Tristam is a former employee of the old News-Journal ownership, and he wants to take on the new company … I never implied, or even suggested that anyone from our editorial team should lower any standard, nor would I … People who know me and the standards I support would reject the impression this story (Tristam’s piece) suggests.”
Tristam answered: “(Redding’s) reflective bitterness bit is unsurprising but also misinformed. I was happy to volunteer for the last titanic layoff a year ago ahead of Michael’s return,” he said. “Redding had been fired from the News-Journal some years before, when he was a classified manager. The issue here, what made the story so relevant, is ethics – for staffers and for journalism – and the corrosion of long-standing walls between sales and newsgathering.”
Allan Wolper is a professor of journalism at Rutgers-Newark University and the host-producer of Conversations with Allan Wolper, an online interview program on WBGO.org/wolper. His Ethics Corner column for Editor & Publisher Magazine has won numerous state and national awards.