Friday, October 8, 2010

Integrity With Exceptions - An Unfornate Event for Journalists

I read a lot of comments on this story when it was posted on Yahoo! that were basically condemning this woman for what they believe is "telling people not to buy local." More than one individual called her an idiot for her effort to assist cost-conscious individuals and some even mentioned that she obviously doesn't know what she's doing by "calling out her advertisers," in the manner she did.

I would like to say to those who would damn this woman, Autumn Drussell, to take a second, hold their thought and then let it go.

Drussell was correct in her assertion that with the crunch on newspapers continuing to increase, there will be more attention paid to the desires of advertisers. After all, for many small newspapers (weeklies, bi-weeklies, monthlies, whatever), advertising dollars are vital to not only the continued presence of that newspaper in the community it serves, but also to the amount of content that goes out each week.

However, the precedent being noted here is that of providing a way for advertisers who are displeased with editorial content to simply voice their displeasure and threaten to pull their money from the paper unless something is done about the content that somehow offended them. As mentioned in the article, this is a scary thought for journalists who believe in the purity of their work.

It used to be, when an editor/reporter put forth an opinion piece, it was because he/she was required to write one as part of the duties assigned to the respective positions. During my time with the Mahomet Citizen, I was asked to write a weekly column as well as a monthly editorial - both of which were asked of me by the News-Gazette Community Newspapers management.

In these columns/editorials, I often covered topics that may have seemed on edge for some readers or store owners or even local officials. But that's the point. It's not the job of a news organization to sit by and hold the community's hands while sugarcoating the reality of certain situations in life. It's the job of the newspaper - regardless of advertisers - to constructively and actively point out issues that are affecting the community. This may include things going on in the schools, things going on with local organizations, things going on with the city administration or even things going on within the business community.

Do I think she did something wrong with the topic of her column? Absolutely not. We don't live in a happy-go-lucky world where no one has to worry about money, and as such, the editor crafted a column (which, by the way, was based on a local chamber of commerce meeting's pointers) addressing ways of saving money by shopping at stores like Wal-Mart and Target.

I'm sure some of you are making that sound usually reserved for when you see someone wipe out during a sporting event. However, considering how low prices are at many of these big box stores, it isn't uncommon for locals to shop these stores anyway.

According to the article, "Drussell wrote in a July column she was shopping more at low-cost big box stores because of the economy. She suggested that local businesses needed to improve customer service, stop badmouthing their areas and appeal to frugal customers..."

Now, an initial reaction to such things would be "how dare you," but if these things weren't an issue to begin with - the customer service, the badmouthing and the high prices - would there have even been a need to highlight them? Many times, we are upset when people lie, but let it go when we know it isn't true. But when someone parades our dirty laundry and the stains are real, we get visibly mad because someone might see us for the things we've done.

Having been the editor of a weekly newspaper, I personally know many small business owners who have had a hard time dealing with the economy over the last few years. In discussions with them, they have brought up the fact that they are having to change the way things are approached in order to encourage local residents to continue coming to their shops.

Some people get it - others don't - that the newspaper is a tool for businesses to get their names and services out there by way of advertising. Once that advertising is out there, the onus then falls back on the business to make sure they deliver on their promises and provide customers a reason to return and to tell their friends/family members about the experience they had.

Then we have the editorial side of things, which can include many different titles, such as news and opinion. If an editor/reporter produces an opinion piece, usually it is stated somewhere on the page that the opinion is that of the individual, not the organization (and if it wasn't, it should have been). Additionally - and more importantly - the opinion that is offered is usually (not always) the result of discussions the editor/reporter has had with people in the community and/or is a direct result of experiences he/she was a part of.

Believe me when I say, if there was something happening that seemed to be making negative waves, I would make sure to put it in one of my columns or editorials. While I never outright named businesses, there were times when the business community was the subject of my column/editorial.

Should she get her job back? I don't know that she should sue for it back, but perhaps sue for her remaining salary. The fact that her organization - a news organization - is not standing behind her for a column she wrote for their paper is pathetic. In all likelihood, she was asked to write an opinion piece, so saying "no one wants to hear your opinion" is one of the stupidest responses you could possibly muster. Her employer wanted her to share her opinion. They then fired her because of it and in the process, undermined their own journalistic integrity to save face with advertisers who weren't even specifically named.

That is a sad situation.


  1. Sorry buddy I didn't have time to read the full article but truth be told, aside everyday items, she should have said avoid going to stores at all because if it's not groceries, toiletries, etc then people need to be shopping online.

    The pricing that exists out there online is so insanely different than what exists in stores that we go to and look around. Give n that much of it is due to convenience but never the less the fact is that online prices can save 10-30% and that's including shipping.


  2. That's not the point at all though. The issue here is that her organization asked her to write something and then didn't stand behind her after she did. What's more, instead of standing up for journalistic integrity, they said "ooooh, you're right, we're sorry, we'll fire her and write a retraction because you're and advertiser."

    Advertisers are great for the industry, but they should NOT be the ones who dictate what is and isn't acceptable for print and should not be given their way when someone publishes something they don't like. If that's how a newspaper operates, they have lost all credibility as a news source.