A question of journalistic ethics


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

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

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

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.