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Editor Resigns Over Restaurant Review


LittleMissCrepe
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A veteran features editor in suburban Chicago has resigned after the newspaper let the marketing director (a non-editorial staffer) write a favorable restaurant review to appease the restaurant owner - presumably also an advertiser - who was upset with an earlier review.

The newsroom union's letter to members and the editor's resignation letter are posted on Jim Romenesko's MediaNews memos page. If that link doesn't work, go to http://poynter.org/romenesko and look for the Thursday, August 28 item titled "Editor quits after paper lets marketing boss pen food review."

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Assuming that's the whole story, she should be applauded for placing integrity ahead of personal gain. I'd very much like to have her contact information so we can interview her for The Daily Gullet.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Her columns appear in my suburb's weekly paper (Deerfield Review)...I don't believe the piece in question has appeared yet. All the food reviews in this week's and last week's issues appear to have Ms. Gerst's by-line.

I've never been a huge fan of her reviews but I certainly commend her for this move.

=R=

Edited by ronnie_suburban (log)

"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

LTHForum.com -- The definitive Chicago-based culinary chat site

ronnie_suburban 'at' yahoo.com

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I'm amazed the paper did that.  Keeping one advertiser can't be better than the inevitable publicity.  Even from a strictly business sense and to heck with standards.

i agree. one would have thought that a marketing director is also aware of the value of public relations, and that such a move would have acquired significant bad press.

Herb aka "herbacidal"

Tom is not my friend.

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Well obviously they thought they'd get away with it. Which leads to the next quesion . . . how often does this sort of thing happen without being exposed? I can't imagine every editor would have the courage to quit over something like this. Most people have mouths to feed and are living paycheck to paycheck.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Well obviously they thought they'd get away with it. Which leads to the next quesion . . . how often does this sort of thing happen without being exposed? I can't imagine every editor would have the courage to quit over something like this. Most people have mouths to feed and are living paycheck to paycheck.

Think it is fair to say that editorial employees of suburban weeklies are much more likely to face such attacks on their integrity by the dark side of the paper than, say, their counterparts at the NYT. I would guess, too, that such encroachments are much more common when a publication or group of publications is under financial pressure.

Hollinger, the corporate parent of this particular publication, is not doing well at all.

Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"
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Think it is fair to say that editorial employees of suburban weeklies are much more likely to face such attacks on their integrity by the dark side of the paper than, say, their counterparts at the NYT.

No doubt, the smaller an operation is the more likely it is that the marketing/advertising person is already an editor. As a result, the "Chinese wall" between editorial and advertising is rather difficult to maintain. In addition, the whole concept of the Chinese wall no longer has the currency it once did. As J.D. Lasica wrote in the Online Journalism Review last year, when criticizing Amazon.com for accepting payments to recommend books (as opposed to generating income from sales of those books):

We're entering a new era where editorial and commerce intersect in new and extraordinary ways. E-commerce is the key to survival on the Web. Within the year, old media companies will be stampeding to get in on the action. The answer is not to stand above it all and dismiss media sites that engage in electronic retailing as having lost credibility because they're out to sell products. In a few years, most media sites on the Web will be retailers. (Perhaps including Publishers Weekly Online.) 

The answer is to determine what you stand for, devise methods to ensure that those standards are met — and enforce them. The answer is to earn and keep your readers' trust.

For example, we have a Webzine here on eGullet. I basically perform every traditional function that could be performed at a newspaper. As a result, I can't rely on the principle that the marketing guy is the marketing guy and therefore shouldn't be writing editorial content. Moreover, we accept that in order to survive we will need to tie marketing into the structure of our Webzine -- we will need to sell more books via commission sales, for example. But what we can't do is recommend books that aren't good just in order to sell them. And really, the issue here isn't that the marketing guy wrote an editorial. The issue was that the editor was, apparently, ordered to lie, and that the piece was transparently a sham. I wouldn't see a problem with sending the marketing guy out to cover one of the Mayor's speeches if the regular beat reporter got sick or whatever. It's the specific ethical problems with the situation, rather than the pure issue of structure, that matters most.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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In very small markets, it must be extremely tricky to maintain editorial standards. Publish a critical review or story in a big city publication, and the results are often quite diffuse. Publish the same kind of story in a place where people all know each other, and life can become difficult. That leads to self censorship, and the ad people don't even have to bother intervening.

Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"
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Critical reviews barely even exist at the small market level. But it all depends on the local culture. In a town like Burlington, VT, or Madison, WI, you're going to find a populace that's a lot more understanding about negative reviews and the need for journalistic independence than you'll find in an industrial or agricultural town without a university culture.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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In some of these markets it may also be a question of the ad department or the publisher bringing advertisers along so they understand that ads and stories are different beasts, and an advertiser is not necessarily well served by uncritical coverage.

Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"
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Right. That level of sophistication -- which ultimately creates a win-win-win scenario for advertisers (at least the ones who have high-quality products to sell), media outlets, and consumers -- needs to be cultivated. It requires an iterated-game, long-term view of things, which just doesn't happen overnight. It also requires exceptionally thick skin. It's always surprising to learn how terrified of confrontation some people can be, even people who work in traditionally thick-skinned industries like newspaper publishing.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Critical reviews barely even exist at the small market level. But it all depends on the local culture. In a town like Burlington, VT, or Madison, WI, you're going to find a populace that's a lot more understanding about negative reviews and the need for journalistic independence than you'll find in an industrial or agricultural town without a university culture.

Just to confirm, IMO Ms. Gerst isn't particularly critical in her food/restaurant reviews to begin with. I've always considered her to be more or less a 'homer' for the places she reviews. She does occasionally mention some negative elements, but I've never thought of her as a tough and I'm not even sure that 'critic' is an accurate label for her. But, as you said, that's pretty much the SOP at a small-market newspaper.

FYI, in this case the market is the northern suburbs of Chicago. The paper (or group of them) for which she writes is perceived to be only slightly above an ad paper in quality...yes there is some news within, but it's the soft stuff for the most part. Around here, folks read the Chicago Tribune, the Sun Times or even *gasp* the NYT when they want actual news and/or information.

=R=

"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

LTHForum.com -- The definitive Chicago-based culinary chat site

ronnie_suburban 'at' yahoo.com

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...we have a Webzine here on eGullet. I basically perform every traditional function that could be performed at a newspaper. As a result, I can't rely on the principle that the marketing guy is the marketing guy and therefore shouldn't be writing editorial content. Moreover, we accept that in order to survive we will need to tie marketing into the structure of our Webzine -- we will need to sell more books via commission sales, for example.

Ethical issues are, by necessity, a lot more muddied when it comes to 'reviews' on ecommerce sites. In the days of yore when I was a 'real' journalist, I would never have written a positive reivew of a product just because its producer was an advertiser, because my readers had the expectation of objectivity. When I crossed over to The Dark Side and entered the realm of e-commerce, I didn't have any qualms about embedding product links in buying guides because, frankly, none of my readers expected that I was giving them unbiased advice.

On the other hand, I think Amazon sets themselves up; their 'reviews' feel objective and so their customers are always offended when it turns out the Amazon editors are on the take... but hell, of course they are. They're selling you books. It does them no good to tell you their product sucks, and it's a little naive to expect otherwise.

Don't get me wrong: I still feel very strongly that journaistic entities MUST maintain the "separation of church and state." (We editors always got a good laugh out of being 'church,' and I guess I still do.) Publications that produce reviews have nothing to trade on other than their credibility; people sure don't buy them for the perfume ads :raz: Editorial credibility is like virginity: Once you've lost it, it's gone and there ain't no getting it back.

~Anita

Anita Crotty travel writer & mexican-food addictwww.marriedwithdinner.com

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...we have a Webzine here on eGullet. I basically perform every traditional function that could be performed at a newspaper. As a result, I can't rely on the principle that the marketing guy is the marketing guy and therefore shouldn't be writing editorial content. Moreover, we accept that in order to survive we will need to tie marketing into the structure of our Webzine -- we will need to sell more books via commission sales, for example.

Ethical issues are, by necessity, a lot more muddied when it comes to 'reviews' on ecommerce sites. In the days of yore when I was a 'real' journalist, I would never have written a positive reivew of a product just because its producer was an advertiser, because my readers had the expectation of objectivity. When I crossed over to The Dark Side and entered the realm of e-commerce, I didn't have any qualms about embedding product links in buying guides because, frankly, none of my readers expected that I was giving them unbiased advice.

On the other hand, I think Amazon sets themselves up; their 'reviews' feel objective and so their customers are always offended when it turns out the Amazon editors are on the take... but hell, of course they are. They're selling you books. It does them no good to tell you their product sucks, and it's a little naive to expect otherwise.

Don't get me wrong: I still feel very strongly that journaistic entities MUST maintain the "separation of church and state." (We editors always got a good laugh out of being 'church,' and I guess I still do.) Publications that produce reviews have nothing to trade on other than their credibility; people sure don't buy them for the perfume ads :raz: Editorial credibility is like virginity: Once you've lost it, it's gone and there ain't no getting it back.

~Anita

Why "by necessity"? Because there is less money floating around? Because there are fewer bodies to do the jobs that need doing? Because the connection with the reader is less tangible? I don't get this--don't you start with an ethical standard and do whatever it takes to maintain it?

Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"
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don't you start with an ethical standard and do whatever it takes to maintain it?

That's the ideal, though it's often not pursued.

I also wouldn't give too much credit to the Chinese wall concept. It has symbolic staying power but publications that separate their advertising and editorial functions are by no means immune to the effects of various agendas. I promise you, it's possible to buy a story in the New York Times. You just can't do it by going through the ad department. Instead you need to hire a seriously connected publicist.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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For example, we have a Webzine here on eGullet. I basically perform every traditional function that could be performed at a newspaper. As a result, I can't rely on the principle that the marketing guy is the marketing guy and therefore shouldn't be writing editorial content. Moreover, we accept that in order to survive we will need to tie marketing into the structure of our Webzine -- we will need to sell more books via commission sales, for example. But what we can't do is recommend books that aren't good just in order to sell them. And really, the issue here isn't that the marketing guy wrote an editorial. The issue was that the editor was, apparently, ordered to lie, and that the piece was transparently a sham. I wouldn't see a problem with sending the marketing guy out to cover one of the Mayor's speeches if the regular beat reporter got sick or whatever. It's the specific ethical problems with the situation, rather than the pure issue of structure, that matters most.

I would say that I agree with FG's post that this is from, and subsequent posts.

True the primary issue I suppose is that an editor was ordered to insert an article and lie about it.

But for me a secondary issue is that the marketing director wrote that editorial piece. Like the bitter icing on top of the sour cake.

Not that non-editorial staff shouldn't be allowed to write articles.

I believe that a weekly in town here occasionally has non-editorial staff write a food article. If the article is factual, valid and well-written, then all is well.

What matters to me isn't that the marketing director wrote it, or that it was a fabulous glowing review. What bothers me that the fabulous glowing review that he did write was not written in fairness, it was written to be subservient to the company.

Herb aka "herbacidal"

Tom is not my friend.

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I think what I was saying, and what you're saying, is that we should be more concerned with substance than with form.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Ethical issues are, by necessity, a lot more muddied when it comes to 'reviews' on ecommerce sites.

Why "by necessity"? Because there is less money floating around? Because there are fewer bodies to do the jobs that need doing? Because the connection with the reader is less tangible?

Because ecommerce sites by their very nature exist for the express purpose of selling you something. I'm not saying this applies to all Web entities; some online-only (or online-mostly) publications are truly journalistic; they sell ads and/or subscriptions to support their editorial.

I don't get this--don't you start with an ethical standard and do whatever it takes to maintain it?

As for maintaining your ethics, see my original post.

Don't get me wrong: I still feel very strongly that journalistic entities MUST maintain the "separation of church and state."

I believe strongly in editorial integrity, but it's foolish to expect a merchant to behave like an objective journalist.

<Gosh, I guess I should go find something food-related to spout off about...> :cool:

{edited for typo stupidity}

Edited by ScorchedPalate (log)

Anita Crotty travel writer & mexican-food addictwww.marriedwithdinner.com

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My father worked for The New Yorker for many years - and took me to the office on a few occasions. The legend is true - editorial and advertising staff were so segregated that they even used different elevators.

Excellent way to run a media business, if you ask me.

There just is no excuse for what happened at that newspaper.

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At this point most every site -- with just a few exceptions (which will disappear over time) -- is by definition an ecommerce site. So the distinction between ecommerce sites and non ecommerce sites just doesn't hold up. Take for example Conde Nast, an old-time respectable house if there ever was one. Gourmet and Bon Appetit maintain their Web presence at Epicurious.com -- which is Conde Nast's Web site for those two magazines plus other content. You can see for yourself how thoroughly intermingled their e-commerce and editorial content are. Go to the Epicurious.com home page and you'll marvel not just at the sheer quantity of advertising, but also at how thoroughly ecommerce is integrated into most every aspect of the site. I don't care who's using which elevator -- it's what comes out in the finished product that matters. And as I mentioned before, as long as a wealthy person or corporation can pay a well-connected publicist to place stories in the world's top newspapers, the Chinese wall is a red herring.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'm not sure the question can be answered, because the media are different. That is to say, the same ethical standard on a conceptual level, if applied to Web and print, would probably need to be implemented differently at the practical level.

Take for example the question of book reviews:

In print, you have book reviews and you have advertisements for books. There is an absolutely clear bright-line physical and visual distinction between the two. Moreover, on account of the medium, an advertiser pays up front for the ad based on circulation and past performance -- there is no particularly reliable way to track how many books are sold by the ad, by the review, or by anything else.

Online, a book review can (and inevitably will even at the old guard newspaper sites) contain a purchasing link to Amazon.com or another affiliate, where the click-through will generate a commission. Thus, the advertisement is intertwined with the editorial content. They occupy the same space. Likewise, the whole advertising model for the Internet is commission-based. This is a simple reality of the technology, which allows tracking of click-throughs to be the primary metric. Of course on larger sites there is some ad placement done in the traditional manner, but commissions are the lifeblood of Web advertising.

So an ethical standard that says "strict separation of advertising and editorial content" comes out differently in print and on the Web. In print, it's a strict physical separation. On the Web, it can only be a conceptual and ethical separation, because the content has to overlap by the nature of the medium.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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