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DealChicken: Where news and marketing become one (opinion)

By Bob Conrad

A new deal has been clucking around town. It’s been hard to miss — a cute, yellow bird demanding attention.

That’s DealChicken, the Gannett Co., Inc.’s, latest foray into Internet revenue generation. Much like the originators of similar offerings – Groupon and LivingSocial – “DealChicken is a unique, digital daily deals offering from Gannett that will provide consumers with great local deals and offers from local merchants in more than 50 markets across the U.S. by the end of the year,” according to Gannett.

There has been noted buzz about DealChicken. The effort was promoted officially last week by Gannett with a press announcement.

“Gannett’s local focus and expertise will provide a winning recipe for consumers and merchants alike,” said David Payne, a Gannett senior vice president. The announcement received tremendous attention from media nationwide.

Another reason for DealChicken’s rise in popularity is the heavy promotion Gannett news outlets have been giving DealChicken launches. Online, television and print ads have been dominant, and social networks have been alive with DealChicken tweets, retweets and calls to sign up for the site.

The reason is in part viral. People like the concept of cheap deals for local businesses and will gladly share that knowledge.

Gannett employees seemed eager to jump into the promotion game. It would be expected that non-news employees would do this – part of Gannett’s mission is a blend of both “media and marketing solutions” – but what’s been striking is when news personnel have jumped into the promotion business, apparently as part of a competition to promote DealChicken by collecting email addresses from followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook.

A Twitter search reveals Gannett reporters, editors and news producers promoting DealChicken campaigns nationwide. Here are some examples: KXTV (Sacramento), The Burlington Free Press (Vermont), WFMY News 2 (Greensboro, N.C.), The Desert Sun (Palm Springs), Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.) and The Indianapolis Star. There are many others. No less than three Reno-based reporters and editors have promoted DealChicken on social networks.

A question was posed* to news-media ethics experts: Is it ethical for Gannett news personnel to promote the company’s DealChicken coupon business?

Opinions varied, but one point was made clear more than once: news personnel should maintain objectivity by generally avoiding promotional activities.

“Faced by corporate demands to promote a corporate-sponsored promotion, producers and journalists are forced to disregard their own ethics and that of their profession to meet the will of management.” — Walter Brasch

In response to a tweet by Paula Cuadrado, news producer for 12 News in Arizona, that urged her 150-plus followers to sign up for DealChicken, Alfred Mueller, professor and chair of the Department of Communications at Mount St. Mary’s University, said such promotions cross an ethical line.

“Reporters are ethically bound to avoid any behavior that even creates the perception of bias,” he said. “(It) compromises news integrity. If it turns out that executives in the DealChicken coupon business are guilty of some crime, would the news producer in question run a story about the executives being found guilty?

“Her involvement in the promotion of the coupons leads to the impression that she would not. Whether she would or she would not is actually irrelevant,” he added. “The perception of bias is what good journalists need to avoid.”

Mark Grimm, former TV-news reporter and media professor, said that if news personnel post from their personal accounts, there is more leeway with such promotions and that social media have blurred the lines of who is a publisher.

“Should news employees be involved with promotions?” he asked. “Well, anchor people appear at community events all the time that promote what the station is doing. The question is does their involvement compromise their news credibility. This should be judged on a one-on-one basis.”

David Stoeffler, executive editor of the Springfield (MO) News-Leader, promotes Dealchicken on Twitter.

David Stoeffler, executive editor of the Springfield (MO) News-Leader, promotes Dealchicken on Twitter.

Nevertheless, he outlined a scenario similar to Mueller’s: “In this case, it would be awkward if it was discovered tomorrow ‘Big O Tires’ had been selling defective tires. How would the producer cover the story given she was promoting their service the day before? Certainly, the company should not be asking their news people to build subscribers. That’s not how news people should be spending their day.”

Walter Brasch, former reporter, editor and emeritus professor of journalism, said that “whenever reporters cross the line from news into promotion and advertising, there is a distinct smell. The wall between news and advertising is breaking down, especially in a bad economy, but the public needs to know that reporters report news and don’t huckster product, especially one promoted by its own company.

“This is an example of reporters crossing that barrier,” he added. “Faced by corporate demands to promote a corporate-sponsored promotion, producers and journalists are forced to disregard their own ethics and that of their profession to meet the will of management. But, there are journalists (who) do stand up to corporate excesses, often at their own financial peril, and they are the ones who would make both the profession and the public proud that there may still be integrity left in the news industry.”

With DealChicken, though, news personnel have become pitchmen for Gannett’s latest money maker. This is in the wake of recent, sizeable layoffs in the company’s history – 700 employees. Researcher and writer for the Poynter Institute, Rick Edmonds, said that while Gannett’s marketing efforts increase, its newsrooms will continue to shrink.

“And they are much more likely to get smaller still than regain some of their lost bulk in the years immediately ahead as legacy ad budgets get shaved in favor of a wide range of digital marketing,” he wrote in the wake of the most recent Gannett layoff announcement.

With DealChicken, the company is on its way to carving a wider digital marketing path. The trick is that, this time, Gannett got its journalists to also be its marketers.

* The same question was asked of the ethics committee chairs from the Society of Professional Journalists. One did not respond; the other declined to comment, saying that he works periodically for a Gannett-owned station. One of the SPJ’s ethical mandates is to “distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.”



Beryl Love August 3, 2011 - 3:32 pm

This is a good discussion to have. Bob has raised issues that editors wrestle with on daily basis.

As those of us who work for legacy media organizations transform (that’s code for fight for survival), we have to be bold. We have to be willing disrupt our traditional ways of going to market, because if we don’t, others will. And they have. Now is not the time to cower behind a one-size-fits-all interpretation of the rules of engagement.

So getting to the point in question, did RGJ journalists cross the ethical line by participating in the effort to tell the community we are in the daily deal business? My answer is no.

RGJ journalists do not sell Deal Chicken programs. They don’t meet with advertisers, sign contracts or participate in any of those other-side-of-the-building activities that would compromise the integrity of our news coverage. None of our advertisers is protected from unfavorable coverage, and Deal Chicken does not change that one bit.

Additionally, no one in the newsroom was required to promote Deal Chicken. It was a building-wide contest, and I encouraged participation. Why? Because a successful Deal Chicken launch means I might not have to lay off any reporters this year.

What Bob might have mentioned for some perspective (he seems to be very informed about the Gannett Co.) is that the RGJ, along with the entire corporate news division, has renewed its longtime commitment to watchdog journalism. In the past year alone, the RGJ has exposed enforcement gaps in DUI laws; uncovered a shady operation that collected money from area churches to build homes in Haiti but to this day has not built anything and can’t account for the money; filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the Regional Transportation Commission find out why $2.3 million in cost overruns for the Fourth Street Station were not approved by an oversight committee; and teamed up with the Las Vegas Sun for a data analysis that showed medical mistakes and infections often go unreported by Nevada’s hospitals.

This “Big J” journalism is not cheap. It takes time. It requires a good attorney on retainer. And it can’t be done by a blogger sitting in his basement next to a bowl of Cheetos.

The Big O Tires “what if” is interesting, though somewhat off the point. No editor I know would think twice about doing that story.

A better hypothetical is whether Gannett journalists would look the other way if a scandal emerged over Deal Chicken itself. This newsroom would not. In fact, we’d probably go overboard with coverage just to prove without a shadow of a doubt that in our business, integrity matters.

In case anyone is interested, here are Gannett’s Principles of Ethical Conduct for news employees:


Beryl Love
Executive Editor
Reno Gazette-Journal
RGJ Media

Bob Conrad
Bob Conrad August 4, 2011 - 5:36 pm


Thank you for contributing to the discussion.

This response appears to say it is ethical for Gannett journalists to promote Deal Chicken but that doing so is necessary, to some degree, for newsroom survival.

I’d like to respond to a few points.

First, other media have survived without encouraging its reporters to promote online money-making activities as Gannett is doing. To tie the success of DealChicken to people (maybe) keeping their jobs makes for a potential ethical quandary for those employees, especially if their profession demands some attempt at objectivity and such promotions then shift incentives for them beyond just news reporting. It also ignores the many other costs and realities associated with operating large news corporations that are accountable to shareholders.

I recognize the news business is in trouble, which a part of me finds scary, particularly when consumers can pick and choose media, including ThisisReno, that only reaffirm their beliefs. The other part of me is excited by increased participation into civic processes enabled by democratized media, such as ThisisReno. Therefore, the characterization of a “blogger sitting in his basement next to a bowl of Cheetos” is potentially demeaning to the many well-intentioned citizen journalists, or just plain citizens, who have transformed not only news but whole societies by ‘reporting’ news as they see it and as it happens, something legacy media are structurally less capable of doing.

More importantly, a major point appears to have been missed, one made by the ethicists quoted in the post. You write: “Did RGJ journalists cross the ethical line by participating in the effort to tell the community we are in the daily deal business? My answer is no.” The ethicists, who are in a more objective position to address this point, disagree. The point was about avoiding the APPEARANCE of bias, not de facto bias.

In regards to what RGJ has been doing with its news, this perspective is irrelevant to the original post, which was about a very specific aspect of Gannett’s marketing operations, not RGJ’s reporting successes. It’s a red herring, in other words.

As far as Gannett’s ethics, those principles look good on screen. Instead, Gannett, via fiat, is compromising ethics with its DealChicken promotions; the ethicists say it crosses the line.

Loosely framing such promotions as a justification for survival of news operations is ironic since some predict Gannett’s increased digital marketing initiatives will coincide with the demise of these news positions over time.

Lastly, one person, whose tweet is linked in the post, has since denied mentioning DealChicken was promotional. “Just newsroom color,” he wrote today. He then made it a point, jokingly, to mention Groupon and others. It suggests that he is uncomfortable that his role as a newsman is being confused with being a pitchman for DealChicken.


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