Friday, May 1, 2009

'Chicago Trib,' 'LAT': Editorial Clashes With Biz Side

by Erik Sass

When Sam Zell led a buyout of the Tribune Co. in April 2007, he promised that management would respect the integrity of the editorial operations, but newsroom staffers evinced skepticism. Two years, hundreds of layoffs, and one bankruptcy later, newsrooms at the company's biggest papers are in a state of ferment about breaches of the boundary between editorial and advertising operations.

Indeed, as Zell and his minions look increasingly like an unwanted foreign regime, a bona fide newsroom uprising may be in the offing.

In the latest controversy, 55 reporters and editors at the flagship Chicago Tribune signed an email to editor Gerould Kern and managing editor Jane Hirt accusing the paper's marketing department of surveying subscribers about unfinished stories to gauge their reaction -- laying the groundwork for deciding which articles get published based on market sentiment.

According to the Associate Press, which first reported the email, the editorial staffers still don't know whether articles were changed or canceled because of responses to these surveys.

Either way, they wrote, the marketing surveys set a bad precedent, as it's hard to imagine any other use for the information. "It is a fundamental principle of journalism that we do not give people outside the newspaper the option of deciding whether or not we should publish a story, whether they be advertisers, politicians or just regular readers." In the wake of the email, Kern said the marketing surveys were an experimental project that would now be suspended, following a brief period of operation.

The fracas at the company's flagship paper comes just weeks after the newsroom at another big Tribune paper, the Los Angeles Times, lashed out at management for allowing an ad resembling an article on the front cover of the newspaper.

The ad, for NBC's new LA police drama "Southland," was run over the objections of editor Russ Stanton and a dozen other senior editors. In an interview with TheWrap, LAT executive editor John Arthur called the front-page ad "horrible," "unfortunate" and "a mistake." In the interview, Arthur also took issue with an ad for "The Soloist" that appeared to be a supplement using LA Times-style font from section fronts.

The conflict between editorial and business operations at the LAT has been long simmering. Last summer, the original Los Angeles Times Magazine was closed and replaced by a new publication, with a new editorial staff, entirely under the control of the Los Angeles Times Media Group. In short, control of the magazine came from the business -- not editorial -- side.

For ethical reasons, Stanton requested that the Media Group not call itself the Los Angeles Times Magazine, since it is not under the control of the newspaper's editorial staff. The new publication was given a slightly different name: L.A. Los Angeles Times Magazine.

In a memo to employees last month, John T. O'Loughlin, the executive vice president and CMO for target media at the LAT Media Group, referred to the magazine as a "flagship publication" of the newspaper -- appearing to negate the earlier, mostly semantic distinction.

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