Cutting a $475,000 school deal in Denver p.12

By: David Noack Rocky Mountain News defends its promotional sponsorship in face of First Amendment questions

A pending agreement that would make the Rocky Mountain News a corporate sponsor of a suburban Denver, Colo., school district is drawing fire from newsroom ethicists.
The taxpayer-supported Jefferson County public schools and the paper are negotiating a five-year contract that calls for the paper to pay roughly $95,000 a year, or $475,000 in all.
In return, E.W. Scripps Co.'s News gets the right to promote itself at sporting events, to publish school advertising for jobs and events, and to promote the paper to staff, faculty and students. The deal also calls for newsroom staffers to conduct journalism workshops, to speak at graduations and to critique high school newspapers.
A final version of the pact is being hammered out to ensure that no First Amendment issues arise, especially in terms of exclusivity regarding the distribution of competing newspapers on campus.
The proposed deal has journalism ethics observers debating whether it creates divided loyalties for the newspaper, which regularly covers the school board, even as it enters into a mutually beneficial agreement with the district.
Bob Steele, who teaches journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., said that while newspapers have a long history of corporate involvement in the arts and community events, the pending pact raises troubling questions.
"The newspaper's primary responsibility is to serve the public, to be an impartial observer of the educational process, to provide detached and meaningful reporting on the operations of the school district. . . . With this contractual agreement with the school district, they have created a different loyalty to the school system, an expectation that they will provide specific services to the school system, including some roles played by the journalists. They have in a sense sold the service of the newsroom to the people that the paper is expected to cover," said Steele.
In late August, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel entered into a partnership agreement to sponsor a series of cultural programs offered by Carroll College, a private institution. The agreement isn't nearly as extensive as the Denver deal but suggests growing interest in such deals as newspaper promotional vehicles.
The Jefferson County public school district sought corporate sponsors to pay for a new sports stadium, the cost of which has risen from $5 million to $8 million ? all corporate funded. The district has already signed up U.S. West Communications for $2 million, Pepsi for $7.3 million over seven years, and IN2 Sports at $475,000 over five years.
The school board sent a request for proposals last year to the News and rival Denver Post. The Post responded, but the News missed the filing deadline. The district withdrew the offer in order to clear up legal language. This summer, a revised request for proposals went to both newspapers, but only the News responded.
Paul Husselbee, an assistant journalism professor at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, said the News should be able to handle the conflict the deal creates.
"Is there a conflict of interest? Yes. Is it so major a conflict that the paper should divorce itself from the opportunity, indeed, some might argue, the duty to participate in the community as a corporate citizen? Not necessarily," said Husselbee.
News editor John Temple said the agreement will not create a newsroom conflict.
"The business arrangement will not affect news coverage. . . . The Rocky Mountain News is one of the owners of the Colorado Rockies baseball team. We receive no favors from them, and our coverage is aggressive, thorough and fair," said Temple.
Linda Sease, the News' vice president for marketing, is optimistic about the sponsorship. "There are opportunities for the News to place advertising within their publications, but it's also about them placing advertising with us. They have staffing issues, legal advertising they have to do. They don't do a lot of retail advertising, but they already have a relationship as an advertiser and always have had," said Sease.
She said the proposed contract is being fashioned so as not to violate the First Amendment rights of any other publications.
"The last thing that we want to do is violate any aspect of freedom of speech, but advertising is not covered by freedom of speech. Editorial content is, and product placement to a certain extent, but special consideration can be given to people for product placement," she said.
The News already has an exclusive sponsorship arrangement with the Colorado Rockies baseball team, in which it has a 6.8% limited partnership interest.
"In that environment, we have exclusivity as to where we put boxes, access, that kind of stuff, but our competitor can cover the Colorado Rockies just like we can, and one of the questions that's been brought is whether a sponsorship will impact your editorial coverage of the school district. No, why should it? We still go out and complain about the Rockies pitching staff every day in sports, and we own part of the team. You're not going to be a legitimate newspaper if you're not going to report the facts as you see them," said Sease.
Tom Botelho, Post vice president of marketing, told the Denver Westword,
the alternative weekly, that the scope of the proposed contract raises some concerns.
"I don't know if they can lock up the schools because they're paying a lot of money. They can't do that. There are First Amendment rights involved," Botelho said. Post officials did not return telephone calls or e-mails seeking comment.
Gary Reba, the schools' sponsorship coordinator, said getting better coverage of schools "is not the issue. The issue is to partner with a corporate entity to help us out in fulfilling our dream of getting this facility built." He called the sponsorship a "marketing partnership" designed strictly for business reasons. "It will give either entity the opportunity to get their name out, to utilize the Newspaper in Education program and things of that nature," Reba said.
When terms of the agreement are set, it faces approval by the Board of Education.
Editor Martin Kaiser said the Journal Sentinel's agreement with the college differs from the Denver deal. "In return for some promotional ads, Carroll College has agreed to purchase subscriptions to the paper for delivery at the school, and we're offering discount subscriptions to employees of the college and ways to do some things for college students to get the paper in their hands. To me, it's not different than lots of the promotional ads that run in the paper promoting different events in town," said Kaiser.
Thomas Pierce, Journal Sentinel vice president of marketing, said the newspaper will run display ads worth about $100,000 a year to sponsor college cultural events.
"The college has committed to purchase a recognizable number of news-papers through our NIE program to
make available to students in the classrooms. . . . Special subscription offers are being extended to all employees of Carroll College. A special subscription offer to the newspaper will be included in multiple mailings to Carroll alumni, with an endorsement from the college for our promotional commitment to the school. A special subscription offer will be included in mailings to graduating seniors, offering them the chance to subscribe as they start their careers," said Pierce.
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