By: Dorothy Giobbe
Editor spikes column that takes jabs at ‘arm-twisting’ tactics
of the United Way fund-raising committee at newspaper sp.
NEWSPAPERS HAVE ALWAYS prided themselves on their commitment to the communities in which they serve, but should that commitment extend to charitable fund-raising activities in the newsroom?
The issue recently came up at the St. Cloud (Minn.) Times, a 28,416-circulation newspaper which is part of the Gannett newspaper chain.
A few weeks ago, John DuBois, a feature writer who also pens an opinion column for the Times, submitted a column that took what he termed, “lighthearted, humorous jabs” at the “arm-twisting” tactics of the United Way fundraising committee at the newspaper.
In his column, DuBois said the Times “wildly supports” United Way, and that fundraising efforts at the newspaper had gone “too far.”
Declaring that “some places ought to be off-limits,” DuBois railed against the placement of a pitch poster on the back of a stall door in the men’s room.
Also, he decried the “barrage of ‘friendly reminders’ ” he received from the fundraising committee since deciding not to contribute to the campaign.
“What bugs me is what I see as my company’s escalating arm-twisting,” DuBois wrote. “I honestly don’t remember it ever being this bad.”
Sonja Sorensen-Craig, publisher of the Times said that the United Way fundraising committee at the paper is comprised of about 10 employee volunteers from all departments.
The committee sets the goals and “incentive programs” for the campaign, Sorensen-Craig said. The amount raised is then donated to the United Way as a gift from the Times employees.
In addition, the Times makes a “corporate donation,” she added.
Sorensen-Craig, who was the 1993 St. Cloud-area campaign chair for United Way, said that “from the standpoint of allowing employees to be solicited, we only allow the United Way
. . . . We feel it’s the most efficient way to give.”
DuBois turned in his column on a Wednesday. He assumed it would run in the Saturday edition ? until 3 p.m. Friday, when he said the executive editor, Don Casey, told him the column was “too internal” and would not run.
Casey said that while DuBois had always been free to choose his topics, “I felt in this particular instance that the column crossed the line into what he didn’t like about his workplace.”
“If he had talked about the issue of giving, or fundraising at work, obviously I would have looked at it very differently . . . . John was taking issue with an employee effort ? this wasn’t something the company had done,” Casey said.
Casey also spoke with Sorensen-Craig about the column. “Don and I did discuss the column before the decision was made,” she said. “And I made it clear that it was his decision.”
DuBois said that he offered to alter the column in order to encompass the larger issue of workplace charitable solicitations, but ultimately was told by Casey that it was too close to deadline to adjust the piece.
Although the column never ran in the newspaper, Casey did allow it to be published in the weekly employee newsletter, Behind the Times.
But DuBois said not running his column in the newspaper amounts to censorship. “I was disappointed that it was pulled,” he said. “Anybody who has followed my columns knows that they’re all pretty personal.”
Although DuBois said that most of the editorial staff supported him, Casey said that the employees on the fundraising committee were “upset” with Dubois.
But, DuBois said “You have journalists who are supposed to be objective. They should know that everything is subject to scrutiny and everything is subject to fair comment.”
DuBois also believes that news organizations should not give the appearance of supporting one charity over another.
But Casey said that it “depends on whether you feel pressured by [charitable fundraising]. Only about 60% of the people in the newsroom did donate. So, a sizable number of the people didn’t feel pressured.”