Something for Nothing | Media | Chicago Reader

Something for Nothing 

A PR newswire is funding a journalists' speakers bureau, but everyone involved says there's no quid pro quo.

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The Society of Professional Journalists has rejiggered a joint venture with a PR newswire, and the results are passing the sniff test. But was the controversial deal cleaned up or simply doused with perfume?

"What's different about the deal now? I don't believe anything is," Paolina Milana e-mailed me. One of the two creators of the deal, which was announced this week, Milana is vice president of Market Wire, a California-based conduit between corporate publicists and the reporters they want to reach. "I think it's just that the original ethics group to whom we initially presented were really only a handful of folks, not the entire group? Maybe. Or maybe they just had a little more time to educate themselves on this initiative and fully understand? I don't know. You'd have to ask them."

Last August, during SPJ's national convention in Chicago, Milana and Christine Tatum, a Denver Post editor who's SPJ's president and Milana's longtime friend, sprang the idea they'd cooked up on SPJ's ethics committee. About a dozen committee members heard them make their pitch; none liked it, and some were appalled. The idea was that Market Wire would pay SPJ about $75,000 a year to deliver speakers who'd educate Market Wire clients in the ways and needs of journalists. The logo of each would appear on the Web site of the other. "In a perfect world," Tatum told me then, "I'd have none of this." But the world wasn't perfect, and SPJ needed the money.

The deal soon vanished from the ethics committee's radar. But Tatum and Milana kept talking, and eventually they offered revised terms to Gary Hill, chair of the ethics committee (and director of special projects at a Minneapolis-Saint Paul TV station). Hill then was allowed to join in a November 15 conference-call meeting of SPJ directors. They voted 15-4 to go ahead with the deal, and Tatum says two other directors who weren't part of that conversation have told her since they also support it.

So does Hill. "I thought it was a workable deal, and there was sufficient insulation that SPJ retained its autonomy," he says. "There was no quid pro quo. SPJ reserved the right to develop its curriculum its own way. All along we were told the curriculum would be controlled by SPJ, but that became more explicit."

SPJ and Market Wire announced the project on December 12 in separate news releases. SPJ said it had developed a "unique, new educational service to help people understand the tenets of responsible journalism and the profound importance of a free press." Market Wire wasn't mentioned until paragraph four of the SPJ release, and then there was an acknowledgment of its "initial investment."

The Market Wire announcement contained a lot of identical language, but the focus was on its standing as the "first to present" SPJ's new service. Both news releases explained that the service will be launched "early next year under the auspices of the Society's new Speakers Bureau."

Last August no mention was made of a speakers bureau. Four months later it's the key to everything. Tatum tells me SPJ's been tantalized for years by the idea of sending its top people out into the world to explain journalism's practices and principles. A few years ago an attempt was made to set up some sort of speakers bureau, but there was no money for it, and volunteer enthusiasm waned fast.

With this history as a backdrop, Market Wire's money can be construed as a godsend, a second chance. After the convention disaster, Tatum started pitching it as the seed corn that will allow SPJ to create a "curriculum" for its speakers--a set of as many as six 90-minute programs. Ideally, the speakers' fees will not only sustain the bureau but enable it to turn a profit. And far from being a partner in arms, Market Wire will simply be the bureau's original customer--though at this point it's the only customer.

Tatum says that because SPJ is charging Market Wire a onetime "curriculum development fee" for the first year, the programs won't be available to Market Wire's competitors. "But this does not prohibit us from taking this show on the road [immediately] and offering it to civic groups."

Another board member told me she wonders why Market Wire is even interested. I asked Milana that. "We need education," she wrote back. "We've needed it for a long time. It amazes me that having been in this industry on both sides of the fence for nearly two decades that today both sides still have the same issues, questions, challenges, misconceptions and lack of understanding that they did when I started my career. Why? No one has taken the initiative to educate. Market Wire is in a position to do something about it."

"I am pleased," the SPJ news release had Tatum saying, "that Market Wire has decided to present SPJ's Journalism Education Series to its customers, many of whom work in public and investor relations." It was as if the education series was something Market Wire had found on its doorstep.

Hill was braced for a sour reaction from some of the pricklier members of his ethics committee. "I'll be surprised if there wasn't some criticism," he told me. "You're never going to get unanimity. People feel passionately."

Covering the News You Make

The Heisman Trophy is college football's most prestigious award because the sports pages say it is. Why do they say that? Maybe the panel of experts who pick the winners has something to do with it.

The Heisman Trophy Web site tells the history of the venerable football honor, established in 1935 by the Downtown Athletic Club of Manhattan. The site explains that "while the task of designating the most outstanding college football player was daunting, a crucial decision was the group of individuals chosen to select him. It was determined that a logical choice was sports journalists from all across the country who, as informed, competent and impartial, would comprise the group of electors."

To informed, competent, and impartial, add modest. Sportswriters who cover the Heisman and similar honors generally don't get into the fact that they're part of the fraternity picking the winners--unless, of course, they're voters knocking off stories in which they describe how they wrestled with their souls before casting their ballot.

I kept an eye on the weekend's Heisman coverage, and sure enough, the stories I spotted on Troy Smith's overwhelming victory consistently neglected to mention that the 924 voters were--with the exception of 53 former Heisman winners and one so-called fan vote--journalists.

For example, Ralph Russo's AP story, which ran in the Sun-Times, simply said, "Smith had 801 first-place votes and won the Heisman by 1,662 points." The Tribune's Teddy Greenstein said, "Smith earned 87 percent of the first-place votes, the highest share in the award's history." Even though the New York Times doesn't allow its reporters to vote for athletic awards, reporter Joe Drape kept the secret, referring vaguely to "Heisman voters."

The coverage leading up to the announcement was no different. Russo recalled that in 1968 O.J. Simpson won the most lopsided victory ever, "receiving 1,750 points more than the runner-up, Purdue running back Leroy Keyes. Then there were 1,200 Heisman voters. The number of voters decreased to 923 in 1988, so simple mathematics makes it difficult for anyone to touch that mark." Somewhere in there Russo could have said who those voters were.

I also came across a derisive column by Bernie Lincicome of the Rocky Mountain News. Despite Lincicome's disrespect, he honored the code of silence. "With minimal competition, and an undefeated team around him," he tap-danced, "Smith tied the hands of every Heisman voter by being the most prominent player on the most prominent team, though there is nothing in the voting instructions that mentions being prominent. In fact, the trouble with the Heisman is there are no real rules, no bylaws, no specific qualifications other than, and I am quoting from instructions on the ballot, (1) sign it (2) mail it (3) let the Downtown Athletic Club know if you have not received the first two instructions."

If not us, who? sportswriters sometimes retort--about the Heisman, baseball's Hall of Fame, and any of the many other sports honors scribes decide. Darned if I know. Even if sportswriters can stuff a pantheon better than anyone else, it's not in their job description.

For more, see Michael Miner's blog at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration Mike Werner.

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