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FedEx sponsorship of Commercial Appeal Stories Raises a Storm

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By Kanupriya Vashisht

Sponsored sections and columns in newspapers continue to garner attention and money, but not the type of positive reaction that publishers and advertisers originally intended.

Sponsorship of an upcoming series by The Memphis Commercial Appeal on that city's connection to world business is the latest example to create a commotion after the writer, editor, and other reporters raised serious objections.

More than 50 Commerical Appeal newsroom employees have signed a petition expressing their concerns about sponsored stories. 

The pending series, "Memphis and the World," is set to run over six Sundays starting in November with stories about how the Tennessee city's economic health is linked to other parts of the globe. The series is said to have involved considerable investment in time and travel expenses by the newspaper.

In a September memo to staff, CA Editor Chris Peck and Rob Jiranek, vice president of sales and strategic planning, had used the phrase "monetizing content" to explain the idea of selling sponsorships of news and content. The main message of the memo was that, "We are in a new world of newspaper survival" and looking for ways to "attach ads in print and online to specific stories, features, and sections." The memo added, "No longer are there thick, impenetrable walls between the newsroom, advertising, and circulation departments."

Peck and Jiranek also cited other examples of the paper linking specific advertisers to coverage, including those tied to a popular real estate column, "Done Deals," which was recently sponsored by the Boyle Investment Company.

Selling stories represents a major conflict in the newspaper industry, say several industry observers.

According to Tim McGuire, former editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and now professor and Frank Russell Chair of journalism at the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University, selling story sponsorships is selling integrity: "We are supposed to be independent monitors of power.  Selling coverage sacrifices our independence."

"No matter how desperate the business gets, if we sacrifice our job as an 'independent monitor of power,' the newspaper goose is officially cooked," McGuire added. (read McGuire's blog on the subject)

Butch Ward, Distinguished Fellow of the Poynter Institute, and Bob Steele, Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values, were called in to serve as guides on this issue. Ward told BusinessJournalism.org he did not wish to comment because of his close involvement with the issue.

John Branston, senior editor at The Memphis Flyer, a weekly alternative newspaper, said monetizing content is an ethical transgression, but not so alarming. "We are all in the muck of special sponsored sections, advertorials, etc. it's a little like that famous quote about porno -- I know it when I see it." He agreed, however, that this time Commercial Appeal went too far.

 The Commercial Appeal has a circulation of 150,000, and is owned by the E.W. Scripps comapny.

Earlier this year, The Philadelphia Inquirer debuted a column on the front of its business section sponsored by a local bank. The business section editor said he supported the idea only after assurances that the bank would have no say or input on the column's content.

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Just a note. The Sept. 25 memo was not sent out to staff. None of the editorial staff knew about the monetizing content policy until the Flyer posted it on its Website. The policy is still being developed according to the newspaper.

As readers can see if they click on the memo attached to my story, it is addressed, "To: The editorial and advertising staffs." I can say with certainty that Mr. Thompson is in error when he says "none of the editorial staff knew about ... until the Flyer posted it on its website."

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