BLOG: Temptations facing a newspaper publisher

By Assunta Ng

The recent controversy involving the Seattle Times publisher’s support of Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna by giving free advertising worth over $70,000 puzzles a little publisher like me.

Small papers like the Asian Weekly look up to The Seattle Times. They’re our role models for high journalistic standards and ethics. Once, a Times journalist and I had lunch, I reached to pay for the bill.

“Times doesn’t allow that,” she replied. So we split the bill.

Years ago, I approached a Times photographer to judge the Miss Chinatown pageant. He told me that the Times had strict ethics guidelines that would not let him participate if there would be perception of partiality.

With the recent scandal, does the Times owner believe he can set a different standard for himself? Is it worth risking the destruction of their history of integrity, respect, and credibility simply because he wants to help his favorite candidate win?

We publishers fail to do the right thing at times when we only remember that we are running a business and not a newspaper, when we interpret the newspaper as a weapon and not a tool, when we decide that our ego is more important than the public, when we want to prove that our medium is better than other mediums, when we are frustrated that the Internet and television are getting all the advertisement revenue, when money is the end result and not the quality of the product.

I have to confess that I have encountered temptations about not placing the public trust first. Here are some lessons I have learned from my experience.

1. Say “no” to politicians

Several years ago, one of the Seattle City council members invited me to introduce her at her re-election campaign kick off. Initially, I felt flattered and was tempted to say yes.

“Let me just check,” I told her.

“You know better than that,” my editor said, shaking her head when she heard the news. My editor was right. If it wasn’t an election event, it would have been fine, but because it was for her re-election, it would have been inappropriate for me to speak on her behalf, even though the official is my friend

2. Learn to let go

There are many outstanding candidates who are also my friends. The temptation to help them beat their opponents, especially the horrible ones, is strong. But journalists donating to politicians or getting involved in campaigns compromises their integrity. Some broadcast journalists have been fired  because they donated to their preferred candidates.

I have had to force myself to step back from candidates that I would love to support many times. Instead, I give moral support through voting or endorsements, or speak to friends about these candidates. Were there times when I wanted to give them more in my newspapers? Of course. Those questions of “Should I?” or “Shouldn’t I?” often agonize me. But, after more thought, I come to my senses before the paper goes to press.

3. I am no big shot

Whenever we take photos of celebrities, they often invite me to be in the picture with them. Of course there are dignitaries that I would love to be photographed with, but I often have to back away.

I remind myself, “You are not part of the news,” and, more importantly, “You are not a big shot!” It is my golden reminder.

Yes, my treasures include photos with Vice President Joe Biden at the White House, with former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, now U.S. Ambassador to China, with the late Washington Post Publisher Katherine Graham, and many others. However, I don’t want to show off in the paper.

My staff knows better. Whenever they see me in a group photo, they just crop me out before they place it in the paper. I call it wise judgment.

4. Resist getting free meals

When we dine at Asian restaurants, many of them don’t give us the check after we eat.  We appreciate the gesture, but insist on paying.

I have to threaten the owners a little.

“If you don’t give us the check, I won’t eat at your restaurant again.” Or, “If you don’t let us pay, I won’t be able to write about your restaurant.”

It works.

5. Label paid ads

Sometimes, advertisers persuade us to print their article as if it were our own. Our rule is to state the source if we are not the writers. If the article looks like an ad, we rather it say, “Paid advertisement,” so readers can distinguish whether or not it is an advertorial.

6. We cannot accept all ads

My staff can overrule me in rejecting ads when they feel it is not in the best interest of the paper. I am easily persuaded if they give me sound reasons.

Publishers are human, too. We often encounter a lot of temptation. I credit my employees for providing me with insight and perspective that I have never thought of. Sometimes, there are a lot of gray areas, and we just have to talk them over to get the best solutions.

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Photos on flickr