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

Guenter Mannhalt and his Donut House made headlines in June 1981. Credit: Credit: Seattle Times

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.

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