Blurring the lines of journalism 

A dispute over ethics at ‘The Star’

There is a historic wall of separation between the newsroom and the advertising department at virtually every major newspaper in America. But many area journalists were stunned to discover that the wall of separation at The Indianapolis Star was almost blown down last month by the very person who might be expected to defend it, Star Executive Editor Dennis Ryerson.

Ryerson and an attorney from Gannet Co. Inc., the Virginia-based corporation that owns The Star and 90 other daily newspapers, proposed Star newsroom staff write “advertorials,” stories paid for by advertisers and published in a manner that mimics news.

Judy Wolf, a veteran Star copy editor and treasurer of Newspaper Guild-CWA, the labor union representing Star employees, says Ryerson and the attorney raised the advertorial issue in discussions with Guild officers regarding a new business model called “The Information Center.” In the new business model, the newspaper is part of an information web that encourages citizen journalism, continuous online coverage of local news, blogging and database mining.

“You can’t imagine how disheartening it is to have your executive editor sit across from you and talk to you about this stuff. He was supposed to be the one person in the building to stand up for principle,” Wolf says.

The matter became public when Star Vice President Ali Zoibi distributed a memo on Dec. 13 to the newsroom staff complaining about the Guild officers’ reluctance to wholeheartedly embrace the Information Center concept. Zoibi warned the Guild would suffer adverse consequences if it continued to drag its feet.

“If we don’t work together, the company will honor every word of the current collective bargaining agreement with the result that the Guild will be limited to that work which is specifically identified in the agreement. Anything not identified in the contract (everything except the print product of The Indianapolis Star) will be performed outside the Guild,” Zoibi wrote.

In response, the Guild issued a memo later that day stating that it generally supports the Information Center concept, provided no jobs are lost or downgraded and “no editorial employees — this includes but is not limited to reporters, copy editors, editors, photographers, designers, graphic artists, editorial writers, paraprofessionals, online editors/producers/staffers, librarians, clerks and copy messengers — will be involved in any advertorial work. We cannot stress how important this is, both for the integrity of the entire staff and the credibility of The Star.”

Linda K. Foley, president of the international union, says newspaper managers in the past have occasionally tried to breach the wall of separation between the newsroom and advertising but “those forays have been short-lived and often inadvertent.” Nevertheless, she says the Guild is “concerned that The Star management wants to blur the line between advertising and objective news and feature reporting.”

Ruth Holladay, a retired Star reporter who writes an Internet journalism blog, says Ryerson has damaged his credibility. “He clearly does not have the interests of the newsroom at heart … His goal is maintaining a certain profit share for the corporation, at whatever cost to his staff,” she said.

IUPUI professor of journalism Jim Brown observed that nationally there is a “retrenching of reporters and editors and everybody is cutting costs.” He says advertising dollars are moving to new technologies, including Internet publications. Nevertheless, he says, “Some things are basic. You can’t mix the news and advertising.”

Ryerson told NUVO last week that he “never had plans” for newsroom employees to write advertorials but he declined to comment when asked to define “plans,” stating that he would not violate the sanctity of the closed meeting with the Guild, where the matter was reportedly discussed. Ryerson also issued a statement on The Star Web site last week assuring readers, “We will maintain the integrity of our news report.”

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