Varnishing Detroit’s ‘Free’ Press

By Joel Thurtell


There was a time back in the 1980s when The Detroit Free Press killed not one, not two, but THREE editorial cartoons lampooning then U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese.

Bosses were afraid those unvarnished drawings might prompt the AG to kill the coveted Gannett/Knight-Ridder Joint Operating Agreement between the Detroit News and Free Press, though as history shows, the JOA more or less killed itself.

Business trumped journalism.

Think that’s old hat?

Water under the bridge?

Sucking up lives on at the “Free” Press.

We learn from The Wall Street Journal that a private company with a big interest in the health insurance debate collaborated with Freep editors in cooking up last Sunday’s (November 1, 2009) ¬†features on Medicare. Humana, Inc. came up with the idea, pitched it through newspaper channels to editors and bought an advertisement beside the ¬†Medicare article, according to the Journal.

The Free Press recently was in cahoots with another business. According to the Journal, back in September, the paper collaborated with Target to synchronize the department store’s ads with Free Press articles about Detroit elementary schools.

Free Press honcho Paul Anger gave the Journal this glib story: ¬†“One of the things I think newsrooms have to realize is we’re here to cover the news in an unvarnished way, but we’re also here to facilitate commerce.”

A Free Press publisher of yesteryear, Dave Lawrence, once cried editorially about the “I” word and the newspaper’s desperate need to be perceived as honest.

Even in the ’80s, when the Freep was pandering to pols to get its cherished shared monopoly, the word “integrity” was laden with irony.

But “integrity” is a word with substance. You don’t hear it bandied about editorially these days, and maybe there’s a reason.

Section 7 of Article XI in the labor agreement between the Free Press and Newspaper Guild proclaims that no Free Press employee “shall engagae in any activity that compromises the integrity of the newspaper.”

Editors might want to review that phrase.

Once you let advertisers dial up stories, good-bye integrity.

What happened?

Humana, the health insurance giant, somehow got in touch with the Free Press newsroom and suggested a story about Medicare, making it clear they’d buy an ad or two if the Freep ran something on that subject. Newspaper moguls claim they were already planning a Medicare spread. Hard to prove either way, though it’s common sense that once you start this kind of communication between editors and ad reps, the almighty dollar will provide its own incentive.

The Target deal involved the store chain calling the shots on timing for the education articles to — they hoped — maximize sales.

While acknowledging that news outlets often have to weigh how closely connected their ad and news operations are, Journal reporter Russell Adams wrote of the Free Press that “by taking a story idea from an advertiser and, in some cases, placing specific stories in news sections when and where an advertiser requests them, the Free Press is offering them a more direct line to its news pages than is generally seen in the industry, where relationships with advertisers tend to be more arm’s length than at TV shows and magazines.”

Adams also notes, “There was no indication in the (Medicare) section that Humana had played a role in its conception.”

A disclaimer noting the advertiser’s role in placing the story would have been the honest thing to do, but it would have cheapened the articles.

So it was left to a rival newspaper to out the supposedly “unvarnished” Free Press.

Now readers get a cynical message: Editors harken to them that has the bucks.

Anger’s comment that newsrooms need to “facilitate commerce” suggests this behavior is being forced on the Free Press by hard times in the news industry.

Nah. Pimping for advertisers is an old game.

It’s just that this time, the paper got caught.

Next step down this slope: Editors let businesses nix those “unvarnished” stories when they threaten sales.

How about facilitating a little more independence?

Drop me a line at

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One Response to Varnishing Detroit’s ‘Free’ Press

  1. Alan Stamm says:

    Well-said, Joel. Definitely no quibbles from me today!

    In fact, this shameful saga gets curiouser ‘n curiouser.

    Shortly after you posted, Crain’s blogger Bill Shea put up the text of an Anger letter to the WSJ about “the misleading, inaccurate article and headline.” He states:

    “The context of the story suggests that the Free Press somehow compromised its integrity. . . . The fact is, we did nothing to compromise the newsroom while creating a win-win-win for our news coverage, for readers, and for advertisers to get their messages out in the best vehicle possible.”

    In what he evidently believes is a helpful explanation, the editor/publisher explains: “The Free Press expanded its coverage of the issue because the Client Solutions Group at the Detroit Media Partnership was able to sell a special section devoted to the topic. ” [ Full text: ]

    Y’know, I also liked it a whole lot better when editors didn’t use the phrase “client solutions group” and put out papers, not vehicles.

    How ’bout more independence, indeed? Facilitate *that*.

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