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Thursday, December 24,2009

A question of journalistic ethics

By Jefferson Dodge

Over the past couple of weeks, some of you may have heard about a Summit Daily News reporter in Frisco who was fired after writing a column that was critical of a major advertiser — the CEO of Vail Resorts, Rob Katz.

In his column, Bob Berwyn poked fun at Katz for posting a photo of the snow at his Front Range home on Twitter to generate excitement about a Colorado winter storm, even though it was warm and sunny in Vail.

“I sometimes wonder whether the ski industry wouldn’t benefit more from being completely transparent about weather and snowfall with its customers, but when snow = money, perhaps that’s expecting too much,” Berwyn wrote.

Katz reportedly called Berwyn, and then his publisher, Jim Morgan, to complain.

When Berwyn Tweeted about getting “reamed” by the exec, the CEO pulled the resort’s advertising with the paper, telling The New York Times that the conversation had been off the record and that Berwyn had violated that trust by making it public on Twitter.

Morgan, Vail Resorts and Berwyn’s editor, Alex Miller, who read and approved the column beforehand, were taken to task by Denver Post writer Susan Greene in a Dec. 10 column. Morgan replied with his own column, asserting that Berwyn was not terminated because of his column, but because of “circumstances symptomatic of a pattern of behavior documented in reviews over the course of time.”

Miller, Morgan and Bob Brown, president of the Summit Daily’s parent company, Swift Communications, declined to comment on the situation, citing it as a personnel matter.

It doesn’t matter whether you believe that Berwyn was canned for the column, betraying a source’s trust or a long line of transgressions (which he argues is suspect, since he was recommended by Morgan and Miller to be one of only two Swift staffers chosen to cover the Olympics in Vancouver). Regardless of what the truth is, the situation raises the question of whether the “wall” that is supposed to exist between the editorial and advertising operations of a newspaper is as strong as it used to be, especially in a down economy and in an environment where daily print newspapers are folding left and right due to financial troubles.

The issue has piqued the interest of the Colorado chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists, which sent a letter to Morgan this week asking him to clarify his newspaper’s ethics policies.

Cara DeGette, president-elect of the chapter, told Boulder Weekly that she has concerns both about the timing of the firing and the message that it sends. The letter, which is signed by members of the chapter’s board, states, “As you know, perception is reality, and frankly, the timing of Mr. Berwyn’s dismissal, coming on the heels of Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz’ complaint about Berwyn’s column, stinks. Warranted or not, it sends the message — to the community, to your advertisers and to the rest of your newspaper staff — that an advertiser has the ability to effectively control, including quashing, the editorial voice of the newspaper.”

I’m familiar with this situation, not just because I worked with Berwyn and Miller at the Summit Daily in the 1990s, but because my former newspaper, the University of Colorado’s Silver & Gold Record, was essentially canned by its primary “advertiser” last summer. The company line was that the closure was prompted by pre-emptive budget cuts, but the truth is, we were editorially independent and sometimes printed stories that the president’s office (which funded the vast majority of our budget) didn’t like.

Unlike the PR website that succeeded the Silver & Gold, our newspaper had credibility and integrity and was trusted by its readers precisely because we didn’t just tow the company line. Once a newspaper is suspected of allowing its editorial content to be affected by the wishes of its advertisers, that trust and credibility is lost.

During my “ski-bum” year that I spent in Frisco at the Summit Daily, we all received a free ski pass as part of our employment. One of the first questions I got from DeGette when I called her about the Berwyn story was whether I accepted that ski pass. You see, DeGette is a former Swift employee, too — she worked at the Vail Daily. I told her I did accept it, but later felt strange about it.

She said that she, too, accepted the pass her first year, but not in subsequent years.

Berwyn, who had worked for the Summit Daily off and on for the past 12 years, told Boulder Weekly that he didn’t accept the free pass — he paid for his own.

What’s the big deal about accepting a free ski pass from one of your biggest advertisers? Well, it goes back to a lesson I learned from my first editor, the late Cary Stiff of the Clear Creek Courant in Idaho Springs. Stiff, who spearheaded anti-Payola efforts during his days at the Post in the 1960s, became forlorn one day when I returned from interviewing a new restaurant owner in Georgetown, my belly full of a free barbecue lunch.

He said that the free lunch could make me — even subconsciously — cast the restaurant in a somewhat better light when I wrote the article about the new business, because there is no such thing as objectivity. Reporters are subjective; they are human. And to avoid even the perception of a conflict of interest or ethical breach, he told me, we should never accept a gift from a source.

I didn’t cover Vail Resorts when I was at the Summit Daily, but what if I had been deployed to the scene of a skier accident that may have been caused by a Vail Resorts employee?

Would I be tempted to take it easy on that angle because the resort gave me a free ski pass?

For the record, I never felt any pressure from an advertiser or sales rep to spin a story a certain way while I was at the Summit Daily. But it would have been good if Morgan had devoted some space in his column to reiterating what principles the paper adheres to.

Whether it’s accepting free schwag from an advertiser or a source, or allowing a major advertiser to affect the coverage of a story, there are ways to erode the wall that surrounds the editorial department, and once it becomes evident to the readers that the wall has crumbled, you can kiss all of your advertisers goodbye, because people will stop reading the paper. Yes, ad revenue pays for reporters’ and editors’ salaries. But if trust in the news content is lost, then it is all for naught. Journalists might be tempted to compromise their principles for the sake of ensuring the survival of their publication, to preserve their jobs, especially in times that are so bleak for the daily print newspaper.

It’s easy to hold steadfast to ethics during times of plenty. The challenge is to do so during a time when the financial survival — and credibility — of print journalism is on the line.

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