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Visiting Professor - Day 8 - Money = Freedom

There is a separation between news and sales, “A separation between church and state,” says Mary Beth Fitzgerald, WPTV-TV account executive. There is a sense of pride in her voice because she knows that the divide between the two departments is catalyzed by the strength of ratings, sales and money.

Successful news organizations have a synergy between the quality of their news product, journalistic ethics and revenue. Stations with the highest ratings can work from positions of strength with their buyers. Buyers seek out the places where the most people can be found and ratings determine where the people are.

This is why winning matters. This is why money can be the root of freedoms. If you can operate from a position of strength, then you are free to do what is right. In this way, sales departments allow the news product to be untouched by the somewhat greasy wheel that is necessary for the whole organization to exist.

In other words, a newsroom that is making money will be left alone to do what they do because it is working. Skeptics will say that popularity doesn’t reflect quality and they might be right. However, the traditional #1 station in a market has a legacy, and earned their stripes from years of consistent and respected work.

In contrast, go to the newsroom of the lowest rated station in a market and they are more apt to do whatever they can do to sell. Buyers have an invisible hand in the newsroom. You could say that in those stations journalism ethics can be easily compromised. The sales managers will run into the newsrooms with ideas that revolve around buyer’s products. You may have seen this on a few newscasts. “We’re here at Billy Bob’s Ford to show you how to install safety seats!” The newsroom may have considered the story without the prodding of the sales department but I’m sure the sales department had a say in where the story would be shot. Or how about a story on the importance of generators and we can interview the owner of Billy Bob’s Generator, he just bought a large number of spots, maybe we can put our news anchor in his commercials?

That stuff doesn’t happen here at WPTV. WPTV-TV is a strong #1 station. The sales department has the power to leave the newsroom alone and they each work separately to maintain the prestige of the station.

Broadcasting companies will have stations that are strong #1s and weak #3s. It isn’t the fault of the company as much as the legacy of the stations or the complexities of the different markets. Like siblings, the #1s try to help out the #3s, by sharing revenue or sales. It can get messy and the #1s may feel like they are negotiating with their own people. Sales people may end up splitting commissions. In some instances, the #3 staff will take 100% of the commission of digital sales because of the referral.

Like siblings, there is a rivalry between the various stations in the same company, but they are all family. Families watch each other’s back and support each other to do the right thing.

There are broadcasting companies creating a cult. Scary places where objectivity is a shallow threat. The rise of Sinclair broadcasting is a growing cause of concern. Some of my students are offered jobs, with questionable contracts and clothing requirements (they are told not to wear certain clothing because they are in a “Christian” market). I wonder how much diversity they will have in their newsroom. But that’s all superficial. The real threat of Sinclair is mandating their newsrooms to air political editorials. See: Sinclair Requires TV Stations to Air Segments That Tilt to the Right

If you combined the compromises caused by the financial weakness of being a #3 station and the political bias placed on newsrooms, those stations will be broken. The journalists inside those newsrooms will feel like they are fighting among themselves or fighting their own instincts. It will be uncomfortable. It certainly does not reflect the world their professors espoused, the righteousness of the 4th estate.

In my classes, I will use WPTV-TV as an example of how it should be done. There needs to be a divide between, “church and state.” Strive for #1 to maintain your freedoms, not just to make money. The money will come if you are #1. You will never reach #1 if you compromise your product in the need for sales. That’s easily said and there are many #3s that struggle to find the balance. They will struggle to get their ethical feet underneath them, as they learn the hard way that freedom isn’t free.

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