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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

News and A Profit-Driven Turn to Advertising

Jessica Silliman

Laura Cole had loved journalism since her first class at Santa Clara University. She couldn't wait to use her well-developed skills in the "real world" of the newspaper industry.

After several years as a news reporter, Laura became a managing editor at a newspaper with a circulation of more than 500,000. Though she was initially excited about the job, she realized after just months in the new position that her role wasn't what she had expected.

"I came to realize that my job as editor had everything to do with meeting the bottom line," said Laura. "The focus wasn't on the editorial content of the newspaper-the bottom line was all that mattered."

During Laura's stint as an editor, independent newspapers, magazines and news outlets were slowly being absorbed by ever-growing media conglomerates. There seemed to be no end in sight to the disappearance of small media outlets.

Moreover, during this time the online industry had been booming-a change that cut sharply into the classified section of their newspaper, thereby depleting a major source of revenue. Once the classifieds section began facing a decline in revenue, the company turned to other forms of advertising as the source for profits.

"At Santa Clara I learned about the quality of research and the need for thorough reporting," said Laura. "But in my new position as editor, I was hearing much more from colleagues…comments about story ideas like, 'That doesn't make money,'" said Laura.

Despite her pleas to maintain the integrity of the newspaper, Laura was increasingly forced to do what advertisers wanted. Higher-ups at the paper tailored much of their content to reviewing certain products that were aligned with ad revenue.

At one point, Laura was even asked to attend a meeting with a major department store to discuss how its products were reviewed in the newspaper.

"Money was tight and it was a $2 million client," said Laura. She, essentially, had her hands tied.

The newspaper's big investors demanded a quick return on their investments-thereby changing the newspaper from an organization that demanded quality journalism to one that was relentlessly profit-driven.

Laura was forced to comply with these demands but grew increasingly dissatisfied. Ultimately, she left the newspaper to pursue freelance writing.

Discussion Questions:

  • What is the central ethical issue?
  • Do you think it was unethical for the higher-ups at Laura's newspaper to review products that were aligned with ad revenue? Why or why not?
  • Do you agree with how Laura handled the situation? Why or why not?
  • How can a journalist combat the growing presence of advertising while maintaining quality?
  • How would you describe the difference between journalism and public relations?

Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

June 2007

Jun 1, 2007