Reporters at the Chicago Tribune say they believe the marketing department in recent weeks solicited subscribers’ opinions on stories before they were published, a practice they said raises ethical questions, as well as legal and competitive issues.
An e-mail signed by 55 reporters and editors, sent Wednesday to Editor Gerould Kern and Managing Editor Jane Hirt and obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, questions why the newspaper was conducting the surveys and what stories were used. They also wanted to know which readers were surveyed and whether any story had been altered as a result of reader comment.
“It is a fundamental principle of journalism that we do not give people outside the newspaper the option of deciding whether or not we should publish a story, whether they be advertisers, politicians or just regular readers,” the e-mail read. “Focus grouping as done in the past is one thing. But this appears to break the bond between reporters and editors in a fundamental way.”
The reporters and editors also said many have become uncomfortable that the marketing department appeared to be playing an undefined role in the newsroom.
No member of the news staff would comment on the issue.
“We’ll let the e-mail speak for itself,” said reporter John Chase.
Chicago Tribune editor Gerould Kern, who was to meet with the news staff Thursday afternoon, issued a statement late in the day saying the newspaper had discontinued “a brief market research project that tested reader reaction to working story ideas that have not yet been published.”
“Premature dissemination of information about stories under development compromises the reporting process,” Kern said. “Our goal is to provide people with news reports that are fair, accurate and complete. Therefore, we publish stories only when they are ready … Research is an important tool in understanding consumer needs. It provides context, and we listen to it carefully. Each day, news decisions are made by journalists.”
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism organization in St. Petersburg, Fla., said he could not say whether the Tribune survey was unique, but is not aware of such an effort elsewhere.
The closest example he could cite was a feature, now discontinued, by the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, which allowed readers to pick a story for its front page.
“Now more than ever we have people saying we have to be sensitive to what our readers want,” Edmunds said. “It seems a little odd to be putting it to a vote before the fact. It could end up with story mix more Brittany Spears that what is going on in City Hall.”
If true, the Tribune survey is only the latest practice by a Tribune Co. newspaper to raise the eyebrows of journalism professionals.
Earlier in April, The Los Angeles Times ran an advertisement resembling a news story on its front page. The ad, for the NBC program “Southland,” was labeled as an advertisement at the top, but was in a vertical column previously reserved for news. The text was next to a banner ad for the show at the bottom of the page.
A statement by the newspaper afterward indicated it was testing new approaches to the delivery of news, including new marketing opportunities for its advertisers. News industry analyst Ken Doctor of Outsell Inc. called the ad a “loony idea” that blurred the line on what readers can trust in the newspaper.
The controversy in the Tribune newsroom comes after 53 jobs were cut last week as part of a newsroom reorganization designed to help the company weather an economic downturn. The company had previously been forced to seek Chapter 11 protection from creditors. With the cuts, the newspaper has a newsroom staff of about 430.
In addition to the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, Chicago-based Tribune Co. owns The (Baltimore) Sun and other dailies, as well as 23 television stations and the Chicago Cubs baseball team.