The ties that bind

Publisher’s link to United Way raises questions

Newsroom staffers protested their publisher’s relationship to the United Way as a conflict of interest after he cut parts of a story.

By David Barstow

David Barstow, formerly a reporter for the Rochester Times-Union, now works for the St. Petersburg Times.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 1 (January 1991), p. 5.

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 May 1989, editors at the Rochester (NY) Times-Union asked me to look into tips of financial waste at the local United Way. I knew I was headed into sensitive territory. After all, no cow is more sacred in Rochester than the United Way — one of the strongest chapters nationwide.

Virtually every mover and shaker in town sits on the organization’s hoard, from top banking executives to senior Eastman Kodak Co. officials to Vince Spezzano, then-publisher of the Times-Union and its sister Gannett newspaper, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

So we knew a critical look at Rochester’s United Way would invite pressure from powerful forces to quash the story. We had heard that a local TV station had killed a similar story after its general manager — himself a United Way board member — was lobbied by a United Way volunteer who happened to be one of the station’s major advertisers.

Would we fare any better, particularly in light of Gannett Rochester Newspapers’ own close ties with United Way? And how would Spezzano handle the obvious conflict between his job as publisher and his position as a United Way board member?

I didn’t know the answers to these questions as I began my reporting. But I was encouraged by my editors’ enthusiasm; they had not flinched from pursuing the tips.

One of my first steps was to review our old United Way clips. I didn’t find much. Gannett Rochester Newspapers is one of United Way’s biggest corporate donors, and our United Way coverage consisted almost entirely of boosterish stories about the annual fundraising campaign. Editorials exhorted the public to give generously.

After weeks of interviewing United Way officials and pouring over budget documents and tax records, it was clear that the Times-Union had failed to report on fundamental changes inside the community’s premier social-service fund-raiser.

In short, United Way’s leaders had decided to pump millions more dollars into fund-raising expenses after enduring several disappointing campaigns. This meant spending more of every contribution on advertising, on courting wealthy donors, and on broadening the base of corporate support. United Way’s annual allocation to its own operating costs increased 61 percent in five years. It was a big change for an organization which prided itself on minimal overhead costs.

United Way officials were candid in discussing this shift in strategy. They were less eager to discuss the president’s $124,000 salary, free car and paid country club membership. Nor were they eager to discuss the lavish renovation of United Way’s headquarters which included a $3,700 sun patio, a $3,000 reception desk, $5,800 for 68 plants and another $135 a month for a firm to water the plants.

When I had finished most of my reporting, I met with editor Barbara Henry and other senior editors to present my findings. They were excited. We discussed story structure and length, possible sidebars and art. It was full steam ahead. I began to write.

We had heard from Henry that United Way board members and officials were lobbying Spezzano. Their chief concern was public reaction to the president’s salary and perquisites. They also were worried about reaction to the renovation expenses, particularly since United Way had been preaching sacrifice to donors and social service agencies. (We later learned that United Way had hired a pollster to gauge donors’ responses to our story.)

On the evening before publication, I went home to refresh myself with a nap. When I returned to finish writing, assistant city editor Kevin Ryan called me into a conference room. I could tell from the look on his face he had bad news. Henry had taken drafts of the stories to Spezzano, he told me.

Now Spezzano was demanding deep cuts.

What had been planned as the paper’s lead story jumping to two full inside pages was relegated to a bottom corner of the front page and a single inside page. Those topics which United Way had been most concerned about — such as salaries, perks and renovation costs — were hardest hit by Spezzano’s cuts.

I pulled my byline from the story in protest. Word of what had happened spread quickly through the Times-Union and Democrat and Chronicle newsrooms. The Newspaper Guild filed a grievance accusing Spezzano of violating Gannett’s conflict-of-interest policy. About 60 reporters signed a petition demanding a meeting with Spezzano.

At the meeting, Spezzano denied that he acted in response to pressure from United Way. The published version of the story, he correctly pointed out, included a brief mention of the president’s salary and some of the renovation costs. In his judgment, the original drafts were unfair to United Way— a view which was not shared by several editors, including Barbara Henry.

As for Gannett’s conflict-of-interest policy, it simply did not and could not apply to the publisher, he said. The publisher has a civic and business obligation to participate in organizations like the United Way. At the same time, he said, the publisher must retain control over editorial content.

As it turned out, Spezzano’s intercession probably did more harm than good for United Way. The controversy over the cuts was picked up by other local news organizations, which kept the story alive longer and left United Way officials scurrying to do damage control.

But the big loser was the Times-Union. Readers questioned the paper’s independence, even though the paper partially redeemed itself with a couple of strong editorials critical of United Way’s spending practices. Still, there was no getting around the appearance that the newspaper’s ties to United Way had affected its coverage of the organization.

Editor’s note: Rochester Times-Union editor Barbara Henry said that while there was internal disagreement about the editing of Barstow’s United Way story, what appeared in the newspaper was anything but a “puff piece.” Henry said that as a result of the Times-Union‘s aggressive reporting and editorials, the United Way changed some of its practices.

For a related view, see “How now, sacred cow?

 

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