Paper takes different tack in dealing with pitches

  • Weatherford Daily News editor Emily Sims poses in Weatherford, Okla., with some of the items sent to the newspaper from public relations agencies.

    Weatherford Daily News editor Emily Sims poses in Weatherford, Okla., with some of the items sent to the newspaper from public relations agencies. Associated Press

Published: 10/10/2009 11:06 PM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The freebies have been piling up at the Weatherford Daily News ever since publisher Phillip Reid began telling public relations companies to send samples of the products they tout.

Everything from cell phones to candy, coffee makers to laptop computers, even various types of alcohol and liqueur have been sent to this small newspaper in a town 70 miles west of Oklahoma City.

Reid said he began asking for samples for possible review in the newspaper after becoming fed up with unsolicited releases from agencies with no interest in advertising in his publication. He wants to change the mindset of PR companies and product manufacturers that barrage newspapers with releases that he said are little more than requests for unpaid advertising.

"It is a campaign that says, don't ask newspapers to put something that's purely advertising in for free, when all of our local advertisers are paying to advertise their products," he said. "We have to keep our doors open."

The newspaper industry has suffered in recent years as a shift of readers and advertisers to the Internet has led to declines in revenue and layoffs.

Reid said the Weatherford newspaper, which publishes in a town of about 10,000 people, sometimes receives as many as 50 to 60 unsolicited releases each day. The newspaper used to reply with a message offering to give the company touting the product the paper's advertising rates. Such messages usually received little response.

When Reid changed the message to ask for samples, he called the response "amazing" considering he makes it clear the newspaper does not promise a story on any particular product.

"We don't sell news space in our paper," he said. "Our news is news and our advertising is advertising. We simply will incorporate it into a story that we might have done."

The products sent to the newspaper are divvied up among its staff. Reid keeps the liquor. If it's a food sample, sometimes it will be consumed upon arrival. Products aren't sent back unless specifically requested. If the newspaper's staff thinks the product might be interesting to its readers, a story can be done, Reid said.

It's not uncommon for public relations companies to send unsolicited items such as books or movie DVDs for review to reporters or for companies or agencies to offer nominal gifts to media covering an event. Different media outlets have different rules about how to deal with such gifts.

The Associated Press directs employees to return items of more than a nominal value. The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics says reporters should "refuse gifts, favors, free travel and special treatment ... if they compromise journalistic integrity."

Reid said he understands the concern of those who wonder about the ethics of what his newspaper is doing, but said that's really not the issue as he sees it. He just wants to persuade product manufacturers to spend their money on newspaper advertising instead of expensive public relations pitches.

"I don't need any freebies," he said. "It's a concept out there and somebody has to battle it and I don't mind being the person to do that."

David Craig, the director of graduate studies at the University of Oklahoma's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, said that by not simply printing the press releases verbatim but instead trying to do some research, "they are doing better than some other publications do."

But he added it's important that the newspaper disclose to the public the source of the products about which stories are written. Otherwise, he said, "members of the public who became aware of this might take it the wrong way."

Craig also said the newspaper should not only make clear to agencies that a story is not promised if something is sent and the newspaper should "critically compare the products and review them with products that were not sent."

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists, called Weatherford's practice "a dubious proposition ethically."

"That is horrendous -- literally rolling the ethical clock back 40 years to when deliverymen would roll cases of liquor into business news departments at Christmastime," Edmonds said. "Even if it's a default to hard times, no newspaper with serious intent to serving readers would do it."

Edmonds and Craig said they are not aware of any other newspapers doing the same thing as Weatherford.

Mark Thomas, the executive director of the Oklahoma Press Association, said he sees nothing unethical about it.

"Is it ethical to send people press releases and pretend it's news when it's advertising?" Thomas said. "...If the person sending you a press release wants to convince you their product is really newsworthy, they ought to send you a sample and let you try it out."

Brenda Jones, the founder and president of Jones Public Relations Inc. of Oklahoma City, said Reid has "every right" to ask for a sample if the publisher receives an unsolicited pitch.

"If you're promoting that product, then you better believe in it and you should have no hesitation to send it to an editor or reporter and let them write a review," Jones said.

"He's holding the fire to their feet and there is nothing wrong with that."