The publishers of community newspapers are often accused of giving in to advertisers' pressure on editorial content. According to Micah Luxen, the Kelowna Daily Courier and its Westside Weekly supplement are cases in point. After quitting her job as the Weekly's editor last summer, Luxen sent J-Source her account of interactions with ad representatives and with her boss, Courier managing editor Jon Manchester.
The publishers of community newspapers are often accused of giving in to advertisers' pressure on editorial content. According to Micah Luxen, the Kelowna Daily Courier and its Westside Weekly supplement are cases in point. After quitting her job as the Weekly's editor last summer, Luxen sent J-Source her account of interactions with ad representatives and with her boss, Courier managing editor Jon Manchester. She also provided secretly made sound recordings of conversations with Manchester, and copies of the emails. We invited Manchester to write a rebuttal, and he agreed without hesitation. We also fact-checked the two columns and what you see here represents our best understanding of those facts that are not in dispute, and the two journalists' perspectives on those that are.
“Stuff like that goes on all the time,” said The Kelowna Daily Courier Managing Editor Jon Manchester; I had come to his office earlier this summer to inquire why the advertising department was telling me he agreed to sell editorial space in an ad deal. “I don’t believe it’s unethical,” he said. “These things have always happened and always will.”
I told him I thought otherwise.
For two years I worked at The Courier on the night desk for the daily and as editor of the Westside Weekly, a supplement serving Westside communities, and I watched as management deliberately swept aside any efforts that make for good journalism.
The Courier and sister paper The Penticton Herald are owned by David Radler, former business partner of disgraced media mogul Conrad Black and former president of Hollinger International until he was convicted of mail fraud and obstructing justice in 2007.
As Courier employees, we constantly heard Radler’s name tied with, “resources cut back,” affecting everything from understaffing, to unpaid overtime to outdated equipment, but we knew that the industry was making cutbacks in general, so we made do.
The publisher, Terry Armstrong, came from the advertising department in 2009, where he had been ads manager, and in his new role, he liked to influence editorial direction.
Manchester would pass along verbal memos that came “from the corner office” with requests from the ads department.
“Businesses help us, so we help them,” Armstrong told me. I had thought going in that newspapers were about serving the community, not serving the highest bidder for the sake of profits. Nevertheless, Armstrong wanted good stories about businesses that advertised in the paper.
“More than any other publisher, [Armstrong] is always trying to, like, ‘Do a story on this guy, he’s a good client,” Manchester said during a lunch with me last spring. “I think Terry, being a former ad guy, is particularly sensitive to that type of stuff.”
Regarding doing what he’s told over editorial direction, Manchester first said, during that same lunch, “If I didn’t do it, I’d be out of a job.” Later, he told me that Armstrong is always open to discussion.
But I saw the relationship between advertising-editorial first-hand from the beginning.
Soon after I started at the Courier in 2009, an email memo was sent down through Manchester.
Andre Martin, general manager at The Penticton Herald, wrote on Sept. 28:
“Gents: it would be my preference that we do NOT report on any activities at Apex [Mountain Resort] this season. I know our readers should know when the ski hill opens etc. but they continue to ignore any advertising requests. [General manager James] Shalman cancelled meetings the day before, was never available to hear a pitch etc., yet he can get ads into the Western and on the radio last week…. It would seem in these tough times we should look after those (as much as possible) who believe in us. A quick search produced eight stories about Apex this past spring and not a nickel in advertising revenue. Let me know your thoughts.”
Armstrong responded: “Agreed.”
There were other instances in which ad reps would submit an advertorial to be published with no advertising label. I would object at every publication, to which ad rep Mark Wylie finally emailed me:
“I have oscillated on this issue over the years as I really dislike that advertisers can potentially influence editorial content…on the other hand I recognize that they do significantly impact our ability to remain viable so I am willing to accommodate some requests.
“We are a newspaper and an infinite amount of information can fit into the definition of ‘news,’ and as this particular instance indicates, there are just as many ways that ‘news’ is and can be interpreted as such.”
Radler himself visited the paper once during my term. He didn’t interact with the newsroom staff, but Manchester told me the owner wanted big changes to increase revenue and subscriptions, which we often heard were down, particularly whenever the crossword puzzle was misprinted.
Management blamed subscription numbers on the overall decline of the newspaper industry; I speculated it was management’s choice of priorities.
It’s one thing for a newspaper to slowly get worse because of a lack of resources, but it’s another to intentionally practise bad journalism – it defeats the very purpose of the newspaper.
Staff didn’t like it; of the 10 editors, five reporters and one photographer who make up the editorial department at The Courier, four quit during my time at the paper, and I understood that morale was a factor in their doing so. Others grumbled under their breath – nothing changed.
I often wondered, what keeps us as newspapers accountable, then? I asked Armstrong, and he said, “Our good conscience.”
I wasn’t willing however, to become part of Radler’s machine.
Earlier this summer, Courier ad rep Shae Smith came to me and said, “Our new client’s going to start running editorial.”
I said, “No they’re not – it’s unethical”
Smith was taken aback and said she had already talked to Manchester and was about to go meet with the client. When I said we don’t sell editorial space, she marched back to the advertising department making no secret of her frustration.
When Manchester returned from holidays the next week (June 20), I asked him if Smith had misunderstood that she could sell editorial space in an ad deal. He said that she had talked to him about running something but he hadn’t made any promises, and had told her to talk to me.
So, I reiterated that I would not run ad-related editorial.
That same morning, Manchester came back with new instructions – that I was committed to running the new editorial content, a column about pet care. This came after he forwarded me an email that included an exchange between him, ads manager Krista Frasz and Smith.
Smith wrote: “I just went and talked to Micha [sic] about the column for RoseValley and she said no, she doesn’t want to run it because it isn’t ‘ethical’ in her opinion that just because someone is advertising with us that they should get an article? I’m not sure how to proceed with this now? I don’t mean to be a tattle tale, but is there any way to go above her head?”
Frasz then continued the string to Manchester: “I don’t think it’s appropriate that I go to your staff but will if you like.”
Manchester maintained to me that the editorial was just a column that happened to be pitched by advertising. The author of the column was a veterinarian who was going to start advertising his practice in the paper. While Manchester was already running a pet care column by another author in the main paper, there wasn’t one in the Westside – which served the community where the vet’s practice was located.
“I don’t believe it’s unethical. These things have always happened and always will,” he said. “It’s not like they came to me and said, ‘This guy’s buying an ad – run his column.’ They came to me and said, ‘Hey, this client of ours is interested in writing a column. Would you like to run it?’ I looked at it and I went, ‘It’s no better or worse than the vet column I already have,’ so I said, ‘If we can make some money off the guy it doesn’t matter to me.’ He’s a decent writer, and I said, ‘Yeah, we’ll use it.’ I said, ‘We’ll find a home for it somewhere.’”
I said if this wasn’t advertising directing editorial, then I would have the ability to say no.
He said, “I’m telling you we’re running it.… They’re making money off it, and it’s, like, wait a minute, if we told the guy we don’t want to run it then maybe he’d be pissed off and not spend money with us.”
While maintaining there was no conflict of interest, he threw in: “As distasteful as it is, that’s part of the media business.”
I told him that’s part of the bad media business, and that at some point we editors have to take responsibility for editorial direction.
He responded that ad reps look at editorial as filling the holes around the ads: “They don’t give a damn about what’s in the paper.”
“But I do,” I said.
At the end of the conversation, I told him: “If this is the direction it’s going to go … then I’m going to give my two-weeks’ notice.”
I handed him a copy of the Canadian Association of Journalists policy on editorial independence, which, at that time, stated: “Complete operational separation should be maintained between editorial staff and advertising staff. Advertising staff should never attempt to influence news coverage in any way, whether it relates to a current client or not.” (The June 2011 revision of the guidelines uses different words to affirm the principle of independence.)
He said to let him talk to the ads department before I quit.
The next day, after a meeting with the publisher, Manchester told me the disguised advertorial would run. They chose the ad deal over me.
Coworkers expressed reservations, saying this wasn’t worth quitting over and telling me advertising departments had yielded the same power at other papers they had worked at.
One coworker, however, wrote me an encouraging email: “Actually, your protests may lead to a temporary backing off from the ad dept. and little more power for editorial to say no — for a little while anyway — till the shock wears off.”
It didn’t last long. Three days later, Manchester wrote a full-page story on Melcor Developments, a major advertiser with The Courier. It was one of just a handful of stories he’d written during my term – perhaps just another instance of a great story with coincidental ties to advertising.
I can’t hold Radler and his managers accountable, but I thought I should at least hold myself accountable.
Since I left The Courier two months ago, I’ve moved to Toronto, and I’m working as a freelance journalist. Many of my coworkers had warned that advertorial compromise happen at every newspaper, but I don’t believe that. It’s precisely because journalists like us make concessions that the industry is deteriorating. I’ve talked to reporters and editors from papers across Canada, and many news organizations are making the effort to practise good journalism.
I look forward to a career at a paper without compromise.
Good ideas come from many sources, but editors make the decisions
By Jon Manchester
Managing editor, The Daily Courier
As Managing Editor of The Daily Courier in Kelowna, B.C., I don't have a corner on the market for good ideas.
Aside from assignments and content ideas coming from our editors and reporters, all kinds of suggestions come across my desk.
The vast majority are generated in-house, but other times an idea may be generated from a conversation with a neighbour or friend. Many come from our readers and occasionally they come by way of – gasp – our advertising department. Even our pressmen have suggested story ideas.
Our ad reps are on the street as much as, or more than, our reporters. They have often shot photos of car crashes, tipped off the newsroom to breaking news events or, in the process of making their rounds, met people who would like to write a letter or column.
Often times, the rep is that person's only contact with a real, live person from our organization, and, in the public's eyes, we're all working under the same roof, so they see no difference in who they talk to. If the ad rep hands that person off to me, I consider their idea with no more or less scrutiny than I would anyone else's.
Does that mean the ad department holds undue influence over editorial decisions? No.
All ideas, assignments and submitted content (on which community newspapers everywhere are relying more and more in an effort to get "hyperlocal") is held to the same standard. If an idea comes by way of the ad department, it is made clear from the beginning that no promises are made. If we are interested in the content, we'll judge its merits like any other submission. Many tips and submissions from outside the editorial department result in no further action or coverage. Some do make the grade. Others have gone on to become some of our most popular columnists.
We most certainly do not "sell" editorial coverage, and to have one's ethics questioned by a junior employee who secretly recorded conversations over a great length of time does call into question her own motivation. Being quoted out of context and made the victim of a hatchet job after that employee chose to leave the company doesn't say much about one's ethics either.
And, finally, to be given an ultimatum by an employee leaves a department head no realistic choice but to allow them to seal their own fate.
Do requests come from the ad department for coverage on clients? Yes, and that is certainly not unique to Kelowna.
As head of the editorial department, I see it as part of my job to deflect and filter those requests. I vet them as I would any story idea.
Most times, we're already on to the story.
As for allegations of "bad" journalism, that is an insult to the award-winning journalists with decades of experience in our newsroom.