Rochester Staffers Pen Protest Letter Claiming Ethical Concerns

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By: Joe Strupp

Nearly half of the unionized newsroom employees at the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle signed a letter to publisher Michael Kane claiming the paper has been breaching ethical lines in the relationships between advertising and news, and editorial and news.

Signed by 39 members of the Newspaper Guild of Rochester Local 17, which represents 85 staffers at the Gannett Co. Inc. paper, the letter offers concern over what its authors contend are examples of the paper potentially violating ethical standards as it grows its niche publications and expands efforts on the Web.

“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, obtained by E&P, 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.”

Gary Craig, a reporter and guild secretary, said the letter was delivered to Kane last week, but Kane has yet to respond. His office acknowledged receipt of the letter and said that a response was forthcoming, but Kane himself could not be reached for comment this morning.

Editor Karen Magnuson declined to comment on the letter itself, noting it was written to Kane. But she stressed to E&P that she did not believe the newsroom had engaged in any unethical practices. “I don’t have any problem with anything we are doing here,” she said. “I think our newsroom conducts itself with the highest ethical standards.”

The letter cites several incidents that raised ethical concerns. Among them was the apparent byline of the editorial page editor on a news story about the local Midtown Plaza. “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 states.

Guild members also point to what they consider “another blurring of editorial and news” saying the paper’s current political blog “draws no distinction between the opinionated musings of editorial writers and the reporting of news staff.”

The letter then refers to questionable events at Gannett papers in Indianapolis and Fort Myers, Fla., in which the Indianapolis Star had tried to make reporters write ad copy and the Fort Myer’s paper reportedly considered sending reporters with ad sales people to “discuss (a) project during ad pitches.”

“That we should have to raise these issues is troubling,” the letter continues. “Given that Gannett was one of the industry leaders in developing a code of conduct.”

The letter ends by asking Kane to answer three basic 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?

“We will publicize your answers so that the community can then be assured of the ethical standards of our operation,” the letter ends. “That, at least, is what we hope the outcome of your response will be. To leave those issues in doubt or unanswered would, in and of itself, speak volumes.”

The letter comes 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. Craig believes some of the conflicts are 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. Craig said the paper has continued to provide raises and worked well under the old contract. But he said bargaining took a turn for the worse in recent months when management tried to implement new rules, including those that allowed more use of staff-written material in the advertorial and niche products, he claimed.

“Last year, they said there was clear line of what was on the news side and the advertising products,” he said. “Later in the year, during bargaining, they took the tact of saying they could put our content in any publication they chose.”

Craig said the use of Guild members’ work for ad-related and niche publications concerns the staffers because it could be perceived as a quid pro quo. “We are trying to define the line, be sure our copy is not being used to solicit advertising or in response to advertising,” he said.

Management declared an impasse last month, Craig said, adding that no bargaining had occurred since November. He said the union overwhelmingly rejected the last contract offer in December.

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