News & Politics » Media

Pop-Ups for Print; Camusing Ourselves to Death

And other trends that troubled ethical types at last weekend's journalism conference



Pop-Ups for Print

Advertising says to Editorial, "You ain't heavy, you're my brother." And Advertising wraps his arms around his long-estranged sibling--literally, in the Target ad shown here--and hauls the sweet, unworldly kid to safety. Sorry, make that prosperity.

John Kimball, chief marketing officer of the Newspaper Association of America, showed off the Target ad and others like it at last weekend's national conference of the Society of Professional Journalists, held in Chicago. He was giving a pep talk with the hearty title "Surprise! Newspapers Aren't Dying After All," and his text was genuinely inspirational. It seems solid research shows that newspaper ads are the ads the public is influenced by most and annoyed by least. You can leaf through a paper and ignore the advertising or leaf through the paper in search of it. To newspaper readers, the ads are part of the content.

Kimball chose to drive home the point that newspaper ads deliver the goods by showing his audience an array of cutting-edgers as hard to ignore in a newspaper as the pop-up ads are on your PC. The Target ad wraps itself around articles on immigration and life expectancy, an ad for a dermabrasion tool wipes away fake news copy, and an ad for Pier 1 shows a happy consumer lying on his back across the bottom of the page, legs straight up the far right column, alongside a real news story about a hurricane brewing in the Caribbean.

Kimball was showing off a new national campaign the NAA calls the Newspaper Value Proposition. If you examine the campaign at site that greets you with the headline "In an opt-out world, consumers opt in to newspaper advertising"--you'll come across plenty of graphs and ads. Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point gets rolled into the argument, along with a book by Ed Keller and Jon Berry whose cover announces, "One American in ten tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy. They are The Influentials." Sure enough, there's a graph letting us know that "'Influentials' Use Newspaper More Than Any Other Medium."

As good as it is to see newspapers fighting back, journalism professor Jerry Dunklee of Southern Connecticut State had qualms. Educators can afford to be purists, and Dunklee, a member of the SPJ ethics committee, pointed out that the dermabrasion-tool ad violates his organization's code of ethics, in that advertising copy is imitating news copy. He argued that newspaper advertising benefits from the company it keeps, and when that company--the news--is treated with disrespect, the ads are diminished too. "We're killing our seed corn," he told me later.

Kimball responded that the font used in the ad didn't try to match the paper's news fonts and that the word "advertisement" ran across the top of the page. Besides, he said, the Washington Post carried the ad. But he allowed that the news sides of the nation's papers are showing a growing willingness to sit down with the advertising sides and hatch plans. "Whether that represents the news side giving in, I don't know," he said. But a "different sort of editorial evaluation" is going on.

Is it a new world? Might be. On Friday morning Dunklee and other members of the SPJ ethics committee found themselves debating a business deal that had just been sprung on them--a proposed alliance between SPJ and Market Wire, a company that channels the output of corporate flacks to the right reporters. The basic idea is for Market Wire to pay SPJ about $75,000 a year to deliver SPJ speakers who will educate its clients about what journalists want and need. Each entity's Web site will herald the relationship by displaying the other's logo.

"In a perfect world I'd have none of this," SPJ's new president, Christine Tatum, told me. "In a perfect world the newspaper organizations would be coughing this up." But they're not, and SPJ needs the money for scholarships, legal funds, and its other good works.

In an imperfect world SPJ is cash poor--without sponsors such as Market Wire it would never have been able to put on last week's conference. But in the view of the dozen ethics commit-tee members who heard Tatum and Market Wire vice president Paolina Milana make their pitch Friday morning, the world's not so imperfect as to require this. None of them liked the idea, and all but a couple flatly opposed it. Milana had come to Tatum with the proposition, believing they'd basically be replicating a relationship they'd set up locally a few years ago between Chicago's SPJ chapter and PR Newswire when Milana worked there and Tatum ran the chapter. Milana told me she reeled out of the hostile meeting and recovered with four cosmopolitans.

"The means do not justify the ends," said Dunklee. Market Wire and its competitors "are designed to distribute press releases. They're not designed to distribute news, and to pretend that there is a similarity between the two endeavors is clearly incorrect." Tribune reporter Casey Bukro, author of the SPJ ethics code, said, "I want to be training young journalists who want to be trained. This would be training PR people in how to get access to newspeople." He said SPJ adopted a policy years ago of taking only "clean money," media money, and when he told Tatum there's a lot of money in journalism and she should go after it, she said there might be but it's too hard to get. "She sees PR people as an easier source of income," Bukro continued. "And I'm not sure because it's easier that makes it right."

Tatum told me she's going to retool the proposal, send it out to the SPJ board members in a few days, and ask them to decide by conference call 30 days later whether to go ahead.

Dunklee is troubled by the drift of things. I spotted him at a panel discussion on the need for a federal shield law to protect reporters' notes and sources. A lawyer panelist who'd worked with the prosecution in the Valerie Plame investigation told the audience to relax: the Department of Justice has its own guidelines limiting media subpoenas, and these guidelines are "rigorously applied." Dunklee stood and asked, "How did we get from 'Government shall make no law' to the government saying 'Trust me'?"

No one attempted a serious answer to that question. Dunklee told me that afterward he buttonholed the Justice Department man. "I said, 'Imagine an administration that decides they want to get a particularly problematic reporter. So they have one or two of their members leak sensitive information to the reporter, and the other side of the shop, the judicial branch, arrests the guy and charges him with revealing national secrets.' I'm not being paranoid. I'm being practical--this is how power is often used in the world."

What did he say?

"He nodded," said Dunklee.

Camusing Ourselves to Death

Albert Camus has had a good summer.

When Zinedine Zidane head-butted himself off the field in overtime during the World Cup championship, journalists searched for meaning. "One thinks," wrote an essayist in Britain's Observer, "of the footballing philosopher Albert Camus, like Zidane a son of Algeria and France. Not of his famous quote about learning everything about life from football, but of his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, the legend who was condemned to forever push his rock to the top of the mountain, only to watch it roll back past him. Zidane, the legendary, lonely, long-distance footballer, certainly spent much of that final against Italy carrying the ball towards the opposition penalty area only to see it repelled." Camus' essay ends, "One imagines Sisyphus happy," and it didn't look like Zidane whacked Marco Materazzi out of joy. But whatever.

Someone at the Hindustan Times recalled Camus' The Rebel. Roger Cohen of the International Herald Tribune linked Zidane to The Stranger, reminding us that as Camus' protagonist, Meursault, contentedly awaits execution for the impulsive and senseless murder of an Arab, he reflects, "As if that blind rage had wiped me clean, rid me of hope. . . . I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world."

Meursault--doomed but content. Hold that thought. This month White House press secretary Tony Snow let it be known that President Bush took along The Stranger to read on his summer vacation. Commentators put both the book and Bush under their lens. "It's usually college freshmen who suddenly take up the French existentialist's slim volume, and then usually to impress some literature major with wavy hair," reflected John Dickerson for Slate. "Name-dropping existentialists is good for picking up girls," cracked the New York Times's Maureen Dowd, who noticed that Bush read the book "in English." Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker remarked that "summer reading lists are meant both for self-improvement and to impress an audience. That boy reading Proust on the beach has an eye for the girl nearby turning the pages of Virginia Woolf."

Recent polls have advised the president that roughly two-thirds of the nation is no longer impressed by the lad who can build elaborate sand castles and stand on his head. So Camus it is. Dowd mocked: "Camus's protagonist moves through an opaque, obscure and violent world that is indifferent to his beliefs and desires. Get it?" Andrew Sullivan in London's Sunday Times wondered, "There comes a point at which even Bush's platinum-strength levels of denial have to bow to reality. That point may be now. Why else would he be reading . . . The Stranger?" Gopnik was hopeful: "It is encouraging to think that he has spent the summer reflecting on the inscrutable origins of human violence."

Dickerson went on more than the others in describing Meursault in ways that resonate. Meursault "spends much of his life as the young George Bush did, engaging in escapades that demonstrate little drive or motivation." He "gets into a fight with some Arabs" and later shoots one "without much further provocation." In jail "he is remorseless and unable to engage in contemplation." When he's executed "he's excited about the day and hopes that everyone will cheer for his death."

These allusions raise the un-comfortable possibility that Bush didn't turn to Camus because he's miserable. I wonder if Dowd knew what she was suggesting when she concluded, "Maybe next the president should pick up Camus's other classic, 'The Myth of Sisyphus.' Was there ever a national enterprise more Sisyphean than the war in Iraq?"

That essay concludes, as I said before, "One imagines Sisyphus happy."

Add a comment