Every morning I walk to the end of the driveway to retrieve my copy of the Seattle Times. The whole family falls into its morning ritual: my son chomps cereal over sports, my daughter weather, I peruse local news, and my wife has already seen everything online (both the Seattle Times and Crosscut, of course).
There’s been quite the brouhaha this past week about the Times and the decision to run its own ads in support of McKenna and approving Referendum 74 on marriage equality. (There seems to be a lot more angst about the former and less about the latter.)
Regardless, we are not suspending our Seattle Times subscription. I trust the newsroom, even when the business side of the paper makes perplexing choices.
It could be in Crosscut’s interest for me to tell you otherwise, but I cannot find the outrage and moral condemnation to cancel my subscription. The rush to be on the record with indignation is evident on Facebook, Twitter, numerous blogs and around the water cooler.
Last week, just moments after the Seattle Times online published a report that the corporate side of their newspaper would fund the ad campaign, I received the first of many emails asking how our news organization would respond. As a nonprofit, Crosscut cannot endorse candidates or initiatives.
Several readers and donors encouraged us to pounce on what a senior editor at The Atlantic called “The Strangest Newspaper-Business Story I have Ever Read." The line of thinking seemed to be that Crosscut should position itself as standing with open arms to welcome wayward Times subscribers.
To be sure, I disagree from a business perspective with the Times’ decision. The coin of our realm is trust and we need to build and reinforce this as an industry every day, not implement creative experiments that undermine it. If I wanted to show the power of newspaper advertising, I would have devised a different strategy.
One local news executive told me, “This was a business decision made by business people. You can agree or disagree with the business decision. There has been a lot of frustration [among newspapers] that billions are spent on TV during the political season but not print, yet newspapers really connect in a substantive way with voters.”
It is a little unclear who at the Seattle Times made the decision to pay for the ads. Their news department was clearly not involved. As far as I can tell, no one disputes the newsroom’s independence in this. So did publisher Frank Blethen make the call? Was it a unilateral decision by their advertising department? That seems to be what the newspaper is saying, though I highly doubt it. In any well-managed company, the idea would have surfaced and then been discussed thoroughly by the department heads. The CEO of the organization, the publisher, would be responsible for the ultimate decision.
Those who are disgusted by the Times’ decision offer several lines of argument. Some insist papers should not take a stance in elections. A few publications don’t, but of course most do regularly through their editorial pages. I’ll bet the publisher of the Seattle Times spends more on his editorial department than he did on the ads in question. The Seattle Times endorsed McKenna back on June 29th and their editorial board has supported marriage equality dating back to November of last year. Had the ad decision preceded the editorial judgment, it would have been even more troubling for me.
Others who understand that the editorial department operates separately from the news department argue that, even in the best of times, trust in the media is very low. Therefore, this latest revelation from the Seattle Times only lowers an already-low level of trust in the media, journalism and the news. Yes, there is a separation of church and state between the editorial page and advertising, but the more a publisher throws around his or her weight with editorials and advertising, the more he or she lowers the bar on public trust.
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