Another unexplored issue is the role of sales executives. In a media company, the editorial board is spared of any need to make direct contact with advertisers. The sales department is the one that fulfils this role. They are the ones that look for advertisers. Unfortunately, there are very little studies done to understand the extent of power that the sales department has. Many of the studies conducted simply assume that advertisers approach the newspaper and no further examinations are done on how the sales executives perceive their role and how they play their part. In essence, they are supposed to be the only direct link between the advertisers and the newspaper. Any message from the advertiser must be delivered through the sales department. This makes it important to understand whether the sales department feel any journalistic responsibility or if their one and only concern is getting the money so they can meet their quota and earn their commission.
There have been studies where editors and writers were asked how they regard the sales department and how much influence the sales department has on them (Howland 1989; Soley and Craig 1992; Hays and Reisner 1990; Price 2003). Many of these respondents claim that they don’t allow the sales department to exercise any influence on what they will put on the paper but it doesn’t mean that the pressures are not communicated, it simply doesn’t happen on that level (Cranberg 1993, p. 13).
Newspapers measure their success through the circulation and revenue. Awards and other recognition don’t mean a lot because it will not sustain their business (Demers 1998). From this perspective, it is natural to be more critical on why newspapers claim objectivity when, in fact, the measure of their success is revenue.
Newsroom Structural Changes That Empowered Advertisers Even More
The modern times actually put the editors and journalists with advertisers closer. Most often, the business personnel work with editors and writers in developing business growth strategies of newspapers forcing the editors to be concerned about how their contents can be skewed towards attracting a wider circulation (Risser 2000). This move was spearheaded by The Los Angeles Times in 1997 when they created different business units that are composed a business or sales people and several section editors (Rosenstiel 1997). This trained the journalists in business strategy formulation and embedded it with their journalistic processes. They also started implementing a system of accountability which essentially means that each section must be able to pay for itself. If the cost to keep the section going is not attracting enough advertisers to pay for its operation, there is no reason for it to exist (Rosenstiel 1997, p. A19). As expected, this was highly criticized for its failure to respect the separation of business and editorial and was the clearest sign that the invisible impenetrable wall between business and objective has been taken down (Shepard 1997, p. 164).
Many were enraged and directly viewed the move as the most sadistic attack on the integrity and dignity of journalism (Davis 1996; Meyer 1995; Stein 1997; Underwood 1998). Gade (2002) conducted a study among 25 newsrooms and how their organization and physical structure changes have affected the nature of the newspaper and its culture. The study concluded that newspapers slowly loved towards a more consumer-centered business. Newspapers started seeing the public as consumers, exactly how businesses do, and not as a society they must serve by delivering biased and objective news stories.
This was confirmed by the managing editor of The LA Times via an interview in 2000 stating that revenue is always the first and most important agenda in their planning sessions and is also a daily subject in the newsroom and the readers are the last considerations (Risser 2000, p. 26). The Staples Center $2 million scandal was a proof of that. It was a clear statement from one of the most respected newspapers in the planet that money is what matters the most (McLellan 2002).
Another case happened in 70s with another media giant, The New York Times. In 1976, New York Times’ sister company, Modern Medicine, published a series of articles on Medical Malpractice. It enraged many pharmaceutical companies. They are also one of the biggest advertisers on the newspaper. The pharmaceutical companies publicly threated The New York Times stating that if they do not retract their statement, ads on all New York Times publications will be pulled out. The New York Times made a compromise by selling Modern Medicine (Bagdikian 1987). A similar incident happened in the 1980s when cigarette companies threatened a magazine called Mother Jones after a story about how smoking can lead to lung cancer. Tobacco companies publicly declared that unless the stories are recalled and the magazine apologizes, they will pull out their ad placements (Soley and Craig 1992).
Hays and Reisner (1990) determined that editors and writers don’t deny the influence of advertisers on the editorial content of their papers. Afterall, the advertisers are effectively paying for their existence. Without their advertisers’ money, there will be no newspapers. Some print media companies are guiltier than others. The more hard-pressed for funds the print media are, the more they will compromise. The more painful fact is that many of the editors know that these compromises lower the quality of the news stories and the newspaper, in general.
Another study looked at how the magazine culture is different from the newspapers in terms of the influence of advertisers and about 40 percent of magazine editors said that they actually got direct orders from the business group or sales group to do something that was a clear violation of their code of ethics as a journalist (Howland 1989). All these editors claimed that they vehemently protested such a direct order and would fight with the business group but they would still do what they are being told to do. There are a few who said they will never agree to such an order (Howland 1989).
In the newspapers industry, as high as 90 percent of editors said that they were directly pressured by the business or sales group to do something in favour of an advertiser and about 70 percent said that the orders the got was to completely kill the story as per the request of the advertiser (Soley and Craig 1992). There was also the 93 percent that attested to getting direct threat from the advertisers that if the stories aren’t pulled out, any form of support from the company will also stop. Naturally, the smaller newspapers experience this pressure more often than the big media companies do (Soley and Craig 1992).
All these studies will serve as a jump off point of this study. Many of these studies concentrated on the direct pressures or influence given by advertisers to newspapers but there is a question of whether such an influence happen everyday or if the cases mentioned above were isolated incidents. There is a need to pull back and look at it from a larger perspective. Editorial decisions happen everyday and it happens on every story being printed which means it happens hundreds of times everyday. As such, it is critical to analyse whether the advertisers are the real gatekeepers.
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