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Seattle Times ads: Let's all take a deep breath

Why I won't be canceling my Seattle Times subscription over ad-gate.
A Seattle Times bus ad.

A Seattle Times bus ad. Oran Viriyincy


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.

Washington State Democratic Chairman, Dwight Pelz, was quick to say he was “shocked” by the Seattle Times’ decision, which he said crossed a “sacred line.” He’s not alone in decrying the breakdown in “church and state.”

This issue has divided friends, and even brothers and sisters. Mark Matassa, a former Crosscut editor, and his sister, Michele Matassa Flores, also a former Crosscut editor and now current editor at Puget Sound Business Journal, shared their differences on the matter this past Sunday on Facebook.

“I just canceled my Seattle Times subscription in protest of the political-endorsement house ads,” Mark posted.

A few hours later that day, and after a number of thoughtful responses (including from Times editor David Boardman), his sister, Michele, weighed in.

“Mark, I've thought a lot about taking the same step. I'm not at all happy about the ads, and I also don't buy the stated rationale. But in the end, I've decided to remain a subscriber because I don't want the Times to go away. This city still needs a daily newspaper, and I'm impressed every week with the quality journalism the news staff pulls off, under some difficult circumstances.”

Some have argued that the outcry against the Times is simply political. The Democratic base of Seattle, which has just one daily print newspaper to read, is actually just upset about endorsements and advertising for a Republican candidate for governor. 

A prominent conservative reminded me that, in September 1998, Frank Blethen placed his own ads in the Times opposing Initiative 200. I-200 would have banned preferences based on race, ethnicity and gender in state and local public employment, contracting and education, ending affirmative action as it is now practiced.

“There were no letters from upset staff at the Times. There were no angry comments in staff meetings. It never made it as water cooler talk, let alone conversation at dinner parties and cocktail receptions.”

A former Seattle Times newsman points out that the I-200 ads had no impact on journalistic integrity.

“An indication of the newsroom’s independence and quality is that the coverage of I-200 was a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting.”

The Pulitzer board cited, “Tom Brune of The Seattle Times: For his revealing analysis of the Washington state initiative on affirmative action that challenged accepted notions about practices that had been in place for three decades.”

For all of the hand-wringing, I must ask: Where is the evidence of this breach in journalistic integrity? Is the news written by Seattle Times journalists somehow biased or slanted as a result of this decision? I don’t think so. In fact, the Seattle Times itself seems to be the best source of information on the topic.

News reporters and editors I know at the Times would never compromise their independence and objectivity. Those are the principle values for which journalists live and die. 

If they were ever pressured by the business side of The Seattle Times to toe a line in their news reporting – on elections or public arenas or any story -- they would say so. They would make a big stink, and likely resign. That is the sacred line of a news reporter.

The sacred obligation of publishers must be to continue to innovate in order to pay for quality news reporting. Against great odds, the Seattle Times has managed to endure as a print publication. For this, they deserve some credit. Publishers make missteps like any other business executive. With newspaper revenues continuing to sag, desperate times may lead to even more creative experiments. Buckle your seatbelts.

Greg Shaw is the publisher/CEO of Crosscut.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 12:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Greg, nice article, but FYI, I-200 passed in 1998 with 58% of the vote. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Initiative_200

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 2:06 p.m. Inappropriate

"PubliCola is a blog about Seattle written by journalists who are dedicated to nonpartisan, original daily reporting that prioritizes a balanced approach to news."

Much of the outrage, particularly Sandeep Kaushick's recent bleat, is just so much hypocrisy.

BlueLight

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 3:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Proof once again that the wrong newspaper closed in 2009...

orino

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 3:27 p.m. Inappropriate

No matter if a self-sponsored ad for Romney or Obama, it's wrong. And it's not the Seattle Times Advertising Department, the Seattle Times News Department, the Seattle Times Editorial department, the sports, the culture, etc. as if they were all discrte non-interacting units, at least from the public's perception. It is the Seattle Times as one entity. Mr. Shaw, you can't cherry pick the piece that does or doesn't suit you. Also, it is already clear that by the letter of 100 employees deploring the ad policy there has already been a breakdown in the supposed wall between ad and news and therefore a compromise in the "impartialiy" of the paper. I wish I had a subscription to cancel.

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 3:39 p.m. Inappropriate

OK, I get that the Times is upset because they're missing out on the political advertising bonanza during election season. But their reasoning, not to mention their methodology, is beyond curious. The Times chose to provide free advertising to a candidate and ballot issue previously endorsed by their own editorial department. How can any outcome prove anything at all? Better they should have done the opposite, and provided free ads for Inslee and against gay marriage. Should Inslee win, and gay marriage be rejected, the Times could then say, "See, it's the free ads. Editorial endorsements mean nothing. Give us your ad money." Now any result is a stalemate, unless in some convoluted form of reasoning unique to the inbred Blethen dynasty, they are telling candidates that to win an election, they must gain the Times' endorsement, and also fork over the advertising bucks.

gabowker

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 3:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Greg, I disagree. I don't think you're making any distinction between journalists (worth supporting) and the jackwagons on the other side of the news/business firewall (worth egging). The problem is that I can't target where my subscription money can be used within the Times, and there's no way they're going to get my money if it's going to be used for ridiculous, journalism-hostile pseudo-experiments like this.

I have a number of friends at the Times. I'll continue to lend them a sympathetic ear. I'll keep on buying them drinks and meals. I'll support their side endeavors with my money. But I won't give their idiot bosses my money.

And I think you overvalued the potency and validity of the Times brand. Organizational newspapering is the past (and my Times sources tell me the paper is hanging on by the fingernails of its fingernails). Entrepreneurial journalism like Crosscut (and Publicola and Sportspress Northwest and Three Sheets Northwest, among many others) is the future. I'd like to see the Times newsroom folks embrace this reality, split off en masse or separately, and sell and market their journalism apart from the fading flag of Fairview Fannie. It's not like most of them make living wages (especially with wage freezes, rollbacks, furloughs and the rising percentages they have to pay toward their benefit packages) as is. I hope they take a risk and taste the ceiling-free rewards of independent journalism.

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 3:57 p.m. Inappropriate

I stopped subscribing ages ago because I really was not reading the hardcopy and don't need all that paper piling up 'in case' I find time to plow through it.

I believe that a better strategy for objecting was employed by those who suspended delivery for a few days or called/emailed complaints.

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 5:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Maybe I have seen Citizen Kane a few too many times but I have to ask myself, why does a publisher do what he does? to make big money? you commenters think the Sulzbergers are in it for the money? if they are woe unto the Sulzberger genetic line. Publishers want to change history. The local big wants to see gay marriage legal in Washington and the first Republican governor in three decades. This may be the last chance for Republicans, if McKenna can't win against Inslee we do not have two party government in Washington and may not have for many decades to come. It's important. Times publishers are putting their own money on the line. It's not in the news columns (those are mainly slanted the other way). It's in there with the ads for motorized wheelchairs. If there is a real issue here those Times employees will go on strike again, right? they'll stand up for what's right.

kieth

Posted Wed, Oct 24, 7:15 p.m. Inappropriate

I have not subscribed to the Times for years, but I read it everyday online.

There is always a suspicion about the neutrality of journalists and journalism outlets at every level and from every direction. The reporters themselves are human and carry biases like any other human. Even if we trusted the reporters we could have doubts about their editors. There is the potential conflict of interest when reporting on topics of interest to advertisers or the advertisers themselves. Then there is the Letters to the Editor section where an editor decides which letters to print and which to suppress. Then there are the folks who write the opinion pieces and we have to wonder about the strength of the firewall between news and opinion. In the case of a family owned media outlet like the Times we have to wonder about the influence of the personal biases of the owner. There are already lots of potential conflicts of interest and lots of reasons to question - if not doubt - the integrity of the journalism.

Now this.

Some might not see much difference between running an editorial endorsement for the ballot item or candidate and running an ad for them. But there is a difference. One is coming from the editorial board and the other is coming from the newspaper as a business. The editorial board doesn't pay the reporters; the business does. So while the journalists can say that they have no relationship with the editorial board, they can't say that about the business. Subscribers and advertisers don't write their checks to the editorial board, they write them to the business. So while I can't say that my ad dollars or subscription dollars support the editorial board, they do support the business.

If nothing else, it is one more hole in the bucket and the newspaper's journalistic integrity is running out.

The Times tried another experiment recently. They asked people to submit tweets about I-1240, but they only ran the ones in support of the initiative. None of the tweets in opposition got through their filter. Now they are editing the readers' content. Not in print - online. One more hole in the bucket.

coolpapa

Posted Thu, Oct 25, 10:15 a.m. Inappropriate

So, ideally, the publisher should make enough money with his product to pay his employees well. The employees should present us with the news and their considered opinions... but not the publisher. The wisdom of Seattle Times reporters and pundits should not be influenced by suggestions from their employer.

C'mon, has newspaper publishing ever achieved anything like that? and, most of all, should it? as I understand it the sacred "editorial board" is selected by the publisher. Correct me if I am wrong. The idea that the publisher should just make enough money to efficiently disseminate the opinions of a surly, strike prone staff is kind of amusing. Anyway, good article Mr. Shaw.

kieth

Posted Thu, Oct 25, 11:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Greg wrote: News reporters and editors I know at the Times would never compromise their independence and objectivity. Those are the principle values for which journalists live and die.

I agree that there are many journalists at the Seattle Times who are ethical and adhere to best practices. My family, however, was significantly harmed by one who seems to have purposely, even maliciously withheld facts that would have weekend what became quite a sensational story. We are still working earnestly and in good faith for a well-deserved correction. I hope the Times holds up their end of their promise to the public, as Mr. Boardman reasserts.

Perhaps journalists, for survival in this new age of news-as-entertainment, have to worry about self-promotion over the public good to stay afloat. "First do no harm" is a good guide for more than physicians.

gaia

Posted Thu, Oct 25, 11:16 a.m. Inappropriate

I need my own editor: It should read "weakened" not weekend.

gaia

Posted Thu, Oct 25, 12:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Gaia -- Hope your efforts with The Times produce a satisfactory resolution. You're right that most journalists are ethical and follow best practices. However, sometimes they don't live up to their own ethics codes. Please visit the Washington News Council's website and read about our complaint and hearing process: http://wanewscouncil.org.
We have a 14-year track record of handling citizen complaints from those who believe they have been damaged by inaccurate or unethical stories in the news media. Watch our two most recent hearings, on complaints against KIRO TV and KUOW Radio, to see how our process works. We're here to help.

-- John Hamer, President and Executive Director, Washington News Council (206.262.9793)

Posted Thu, Oct 25, 12:30 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks so much for replying to my post, John. I am well aware of the good work that the Washington News Council does. It is the last one in the US and deserves our support for sure.

We may be contacting you, depending on the result of these negotiations. I certainly want to support your good work when this is all over. Never knew how important it was until it touched us personally.

We need an impartial panel to help keep our journalism honest. Public trust in a free press is essential to our democracy.

Thank you for what you do.

gaia

Posted Thu, Oct 25, 12:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the endorsement, gaia! I just wanted to make sure you knew we existed. Lots of people don't, partly because the traditional media don't publicize us much or cover our complaint hearings. TVW does!

Be glad to chat with you if you'd like. And if you want to support the Washington News Council, come to our Gridiron West Dinner on Nov. 11 at the Convention Center, when we will "toast and roast" Norm Dicks and Christine Gregoire. It's a totally bipartisan bash 5 days after the election! See wanewscouncil.org/gridiron

Posted Sun, Oct 28, 2:30 p.m. Inappropriate

What's this? The Washington News Council slipping a not-very-subtle infomercial for a fundraiser into a comment about editorial integrity? Sure sounds like it. How much are the tickets, Mr. Hamer? Maybe you could convince the Times to slip a freebie into their editorial page, or at least one of the news sections. Consider this a citizen's complaint.

gabowker

Posted Thu, Oct 25, 3:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Considering the fact (confirmed above) that the Times is hanging on by its financial fingernails, the fact that almost every newsroom employee signed the letter of protest despite the fact that they could be fired for "other" reasons is impressive.

I don't understand why one commenter cancelled the paper because he didn't get through all the hard copy; the paper is now fully 1/3 ads, and most of the stories come from other newspapers. That's why i cancelled.

sarah90

Posted Fri, Oct 26, 7:32 a.m. Inappropriate

I had absolutely no idea that this Kerfuffle was taking place in the Queen City until I read this article. This really isn't news outside of Seattle. I'd guess it's not even news outside the Seattle Times' readership. But there is an alternate way of playing this story, viz., The situation in Olympia has become so dire that even some in the Seattle press are starting to take notice.

dbreneman

Posted Sat, Oct 27, 3:16 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with "crosscut writer"'s dissent. Journalistic independence isn't what was compromised here. The problem is that the Seattle Times corporation is betting that the result of the suite of ads WILL be an impact on the election - they said as much themselves in arguing that the goal behind the ads is to convince future candidates to advertise. No one who cares about what some candidate stands for (as it affects them), should have their serious concerns denigrated, the election itself treated like a game played by the mighty and the rich. The integrity of the owning corporation was utterly missing on this. Yes, we did cancel our subscription as we won't donate our dollars to that end.

WakingLeo

Posted Sat, Oct 27, 6:04 p.m. Inappropriate

".. the election itself treated like a game played by the mighty and the rich." As long as politicians can advertise then money will play a role in who wins elections (granted, we have an imperfect system). Seattle Times wants to sell advertising. That should not surprise anyone. They want to sell advertising to politicians; tell me, where is the "integrity " issue? Someone who designs and prints political signs is free to promote his services to an electoral wannabe; does he/she tread on shaky moral ground? if Crosscut could influence an election with their political ads they would probably make that fact known to candidates. If they didn't they wouldn't be doing their job.

kieth

Posted Mon, Oct 29, 8:11 a.m. Inappropriate

Keith, We seem to agree that, as per the news story published by the Seattle Times, the paper's goal was advertizing. Translation: for financial ends, they took out a heavy DAILY campaign for one candidate over the other, ie they bluntly played games with an election for financial gain. For anyone who cares about the outcome of an election, for themselves or the issues they care about, in my book, that lacks a whole lot of integrity, and that's without even delving into the fact that a whole lot of readers won't have read articles such as this one, will have seen the ad, and will have the IMPRESSION of a huge unprecedented newsroom endorsement. As Robert Mac pointed out on Up Front, often it can be "impressions" that make the difference. That action in light of that also lacks a whole lot of integrity. In my book.

WakingLeo

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