‘Rochester D&C’ Publisher Responds to Guild Ethics Complaint Letter

By: Joe Strupp

Publisher Michael Kane of the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle, in a letter to guild leaders, claimed that the paper’s ethical standards had not been diminished due to changing efforts on the Web and expanded use of niche publications. But he stressed that the paper would continue to expand its efforts as it seeks to attract readers and advertisers in a competitive industry.

“Let me put your mind to rest here,” Kane wrote in the letter to Steve Orr and Gary Craig, two leaders of the Rochester Newspaper Guild. “Though the media landscape is changing profoundly, our underlying ethical principles are not shifting.”

Kane’s letter, sent late Monday, was in response to a letter he received last week from some 39 guild members. It offered concern over what the signers believed were examples of the paper violating ethical standards and crossing the line between editorial and news, and advertising and news.

“As newsroom and multimedia employees of the Democrat and Chronicle we are growing increasingly concerned with what seems to be the newspaper’s — and Gannett’s — shifting ethical lines,” the letter, which E&P wrote about Monday, said in part. “At a time when we are trying to restructure ourselves within a new media environment, our ethical foundation should be more firmly grounded than ever. To be flexible and nimble as a newspaper and multimedia company should not mean our ethics are also flexible.”

The guild members went on to cite two recent incidents that they believed had crossed ethical lines. Among them was the apparent byline of the editorial page editor on a news story. “This could give the impression that favorable opinion can be garnered for government projects or programs by approaching the editorial board with news tips, as happened here,” the letter stated.

The other was the paper’s political blog offering “no distinction between the opinionated musings of editorial writers and the reporting of news staff.”

The letter came at a time when Gannett is instituting its highly-promoted Information Center program, in which newspapers are seeking to combine Internet and print operations in a more uniform way. Guild leaders believed some of the conflicts were a result of the new program .

At the same time, the guild is in the midst of a long-running effort to hammer out a new contract. The union has not had a new agreement since the last one expired in 1992.

Guild members ended their letter by asking Kane three questions:

1. Will news staff ever be asked to write advertising copy?

2. Is it improper for our copy, if used in an advertising-based section, to then be used to solicit ads? Would prospective advertisers ever be shown our copy in advance?

3. Are we concerned about the blurring of lines between editorial and news and what steps are we taking to ensure those distinctions are apparent to our audience?

Kane responded to each question individually, declaring that newsroom employees would never be asked to write ad copy, but with a clarification. “If ‘ad copy’ is defined as copy in paid ads, that only comes from one of three sources: advertisers, advertiser’s agency, or our advertising department creative group.” But, he added, “if you’re defining ad copy as articles coming from our custom content department, I would argue this is not ad copy. ”

On the question of using news stories to sell advertising space, Kane offered another mixed message. “We present our daily newspaper as a viable print option to advertisers every day,” Kane wrote. But, he added later, “we’ve never shown an advertiser traditionally defined ‘news’ copy in advance and I don’t envision a need to do so.”

Finally, Kane also sought to ease concerns about unclear attribution or blurring between editorial and news. “I think it’s important that we cite proper attribution and sourcing to all content,” he wrote. “Who wrote or produced the content? What is their affiliation? Does it come from a … staffer, blogger, freelance writer, syndicate service or community photographer or videographer? When sourced properly, the reader/viewer can then make his or her own judgment on the information presented.

“I can’t honestly say where all of this is going,” Kane added in closing. “Two short years ago, I couldn’t envision producing podcasts or the Rochester Information Center, either. But I do know that as we find our stake in the new media world, a journey that has truly just begun, we’ll serve the Rochester market even better with an ethical commitment unmatched by any media outlet in the region.”

Orr told E&P that the guild was satisfied with the response, saying it “settled an immediate concern.’ But, he added, “it is one of those time-will-tell kind of things.”

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