Apparently in the modern newspaper world, where editors and publishers are looking for ways to make the process of bringing the news to the people a profitable enterprise, some ideas die - as they should - in the spitball stage.
And, some do not.
One that did not is an attempt by The Commercial Appeal of Memphis to monetize (this is a new word that tries to dress up the process of attaching dollar signs to news gathering) their content. Content consists of the stories, photographs, graphics, headlines and charts that appear in newspapers and the video casts, multimedia presentations and photo galleries on newspaper Web sites. The traditional model for such enterprises is to sell advertising that can be next to but not a part of the content.
Hold on to your seats. The Memphis newspaper wanted to monetize the content of news stories by putting sponsorship credit lines above the body of stories, and the effort blew up in the newsroom.
Editor Chris Peck of The Commercial Appeal acknowledged to Joe Strupp of Editor & Publisher magazine on Thursday that he went into ''treacherous ground'' when the paper considered having Federal Express (one of the biggest employers in Memphis) sponsor - underwrite the cost of the reporting around the world - a six-part look at how the Tennessee city is linked to other parts of the world. The series would have contained reporting on the cargo company.
The newspaper world has coped with special sections called ''advertorial supplements'' that feature articles about the companies that advertise in the sections. Much of the information in such sections can be helpful to readers who are interested in preparing for weddings or remodeling their homes. But - and this is a big but - most readers are savvy enough to understand that the information in the supplements is not written by the newspaper's reportorial staff.
What the Memphis paper wanted to do was not a supplement. It would have been presented on section fronts of the paper over a six-week period. And, according to staff members, it would have carried a line by the reporter's byline that said "sponsored by Federal Express."
A newspaper has nothing if it loses its credibility with readers. If the trust relationship between the paper and the reader is broken, then the newspaper loses its ability to serve that reader.
Memphis editors forgot that. After allowing one company to "sponsor" their weekly column on commercial development deals, they looked at other content, according to Smart City Memphis, a blog composed by folks at Smart City Consulting. Peck and Rob Jiranek, the Appeal's vice president for sales and strategic planning, last month actually prepared a document called "Monetizing content guidelines for the Commercial Appeal." (The memo was posted on Jim Romenesko's Poynter Institute blog on Thursday.)
What were they smoking?
John Branston, a staffer at the alternative newspaper the Memphis Flyer, caught wind of the smoke and wrote in his blog:
" . . . as many as 50 newsroom employees signed a petition expressing their concerns about sponsored stories.
" . . . Flyer sources say Peck, [the reporter and his editor] had what is sometimes called a 'frank exchange of views' about the proposed sponsorship of [the] series, which involved considerable investment in time and travel expenses by the newspaper. Representatives of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school and resource center in Florida, were called in.
" 'Two of us on the Poynter faculty, myself and Butch Ward, have had telephone conversations with individuals at The Commercial Appeal,' said Bob Steele of Poynter. 'We play this role as a guide on ethics issues hundreds of times every year.' "
When the staff starts calling the Poynter ethics squad, things have gone terribly wrong.
The deal with Federal Express is off the table, but the business of developing new revenue streams for newspapers is one that is up front in the journalism world, according to Branston's blog.
Folks who read newspapers - in print and online - understand the difference between news stories and advertisements. At one point, Peck told E&P that readers were used to seeing a movie review and then turning the page and seeing an advertisement for the movie. That's a weak argument for where he was headed. Movie reviews go on the entertainment pages and that's where movie theaters want their films to be advertised.
Whatever revenue streams flow into newspapers must be of a nature that they do not nibble at the edges of credibility. Little nibbles eventually turn into a big bite.
Simply, it's not a good idea to have the police blotter column of news briefs sponsored by a bail bond company.
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* 6: Number of folks upset with 'old lawn lady' on A-1
* 13: Number of folks who noticed wrong weather information
* 15: Number of folks happy with amount of BYU football coverage
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