Taking a stand for editorial independence
Standing up to an advertiser could mean economic disaster for a fledgling newspaper. But the Bullhead City Bee did it anyway.
By Jim Dir
Jim Dir is the editor of the Bullhead City Bee, Bullhead City, AZ.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 4 (July 1990), p. 3.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
In the inaugural issue this January of the Bullhead City (AZ) Bee, we stated in an editorial what readers could expect: There would be no sacred cows, no special favors for our subscribers, advertisers or friends.
It was pretty heady stuff for a new weekly operating out of a 1,000 square feet office on a shoestring budget. And within weeks, our editorial principles would be pitted against harsh financial reality.
The lead story in our April 12 edition told how incorrect information led to a firm owned by Don Laughlin getting a municipal bus contract. Don Laughlin is a multi-millionaire and namesake of Laughlin, Nevada, the gaming community directly across the Colorado River from Bullhead City. The business magnate’s many interests include the Riverside Resort and Casino, the Bee‘s largest advertiser.
The day our paper hit the streets, we received a call from the Riverside Resort’s marketing department — our advertising contract was cancelled. No reason was offered. Another call minutes later informed us that this cancellation also affected advertising from two Arizona businesses owned by Don Laughlin, a resort/restaurant and the Bullhead/Laughlin airport.
Before the week ended, we were told our news racks had been pulled at these two sites, that our newspapers sold inside the Riverside Resort were no longer welcome, and that the work of a featured columnist, who also worked for Laughlin, would no longer appear in our newspaper.
Past experience at other Bullhead City publications had taught us that some major advertisers, including the Riverside Resort, felt they could control editorial content by virtue of the size of their accounts. In my previous editor’s job, the Riverside Resort cancelled advertising on at least five occasions in as many years and its manager sought to have reporters fired for stories he didn’t like. The Bee‘s publisher Thom McGraham had faced similar squeeze plays. The desire to be free from advertisers’ whims, to be able to do any story we wanted, had been among the reasons we’d started the newspaper.
In meetings that sometimes included our small staff, we considered our options: We could apologize to the Riverside, thus possibly cutting a minimum $5,000 per month advertising loss. A second option was to simply ignore the Riverside’s actions, in hopes that after a “cooling off” period, they would come back to us. But, the majority decision was to write an editorial, letting the community know what had happened.
Reaching this solution was not as simple as saying, “We have these options, let’s take a vote and pick the best one.” First, the publisher and editor are not merely employees, we are co-owners of the Bee and have to look out for its financial future. Painful as it was to admit, the Riverside account actually could keep our business solvent.
But if we did back off from the casino, if we abandoned our journalistic standards, our highly-principled staff would likely take a walk. Reporters George Ziemann and Susan Alfred were angry to the point where they were willing to place their jobs on the line.
Knowing that it could spell financial disaster, we published an editorial: “The truth, we remind, is not for sale.” It restated the Bee‘s editorial independence and called the Riverside to task for trying to control the news.
Staff members, some of whom had seen Riverside’s tactics before, lobbied to get their thoughts included. We had to be cautious to act with our heads, not our hearts.
The completed editorial read, in part:
“The ads of a regular advertiser, Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino, which have been with us since our first issue, do not appear in the Bee this week.
“We knew it would happen, we just didn’t know when. Media manipulation — certain advertisers squelching unfavorable stories by pulling their ads or by threatening to do so — has been a Bullhead City staple for years. To our knowledge as long-time media personnel in this town, not once has any member of the media used its voice to speak out against the tactics used to color the truth with a U.S. mint shade of green.
The Riverside Casino manager’s response — a begrudging acknowledgment that the cancellation of the ads related to the story — was included in the editorial.
Reader reaction to the editorial was resoundingly supportive. One reader wondered why “the ivory towers from across the river hadn’t been dismantled long ago.”
This initial reaction from the community prompted a sigh of relief from the Bee, but it didn’t last for long. We now must deal with the long-range effects of our actions.
We are fully aware that our editorial will forever alter the way the public perceives the newspaper. When we need to report on the casino again, will our readers believe that we can still be objective?
We also fear a “ripple effect” from other advertisers, some of whom have already cancelled or cut back on their advertising. The lost revenue already has the newspaper scrambling to avoid its demise.
Even with these concerns, we would not handle the situation differently. If we had catered to our advertiser’s demands, we would not be able to live with ourselves.