Thursday, March 17, 2011

Detroit News editors make changes to online version of auto review after it appears in print, reviewer resigns

This post was 99 percent completed when the New York Times sent me an email about their paywall plans. Now here is the post, uncut, typos and all.

Editors at the Detroit News have made changes to the online version of a review of the Chrysler 200 written by staff reviewer Scott Burgess after the complete version of the review appeared in print. The changes, deletions of individual words and sentences, were made following a complaint made by a local auto dealer about the review. As a result of the changes, the reviewer has resigned.

The story of the edited review was picked up by the website Jalopnik under the headline How The Detroit News Sold Its Soul. I discovered the story through some tweets by Jay Rosen, journalism professor at NYU, and the publisher of the journalism website Press Think. Rosen found the story thanks to Romenesko who saw the Jalopnik story -- a good example of the way the web works, huh?
The knee-jerk reaction here would be to criticize the newspaper for caving in to an advertiser, or potential advertiser. My perspective, as both a trained journalist, as well as a former CAM (classified advertising manager) might be a little unique. . .

Scott Burgess's review reveals a writer (and possibly an editor) who did not understand the role of an auto "critic" writing for the auto section -- especially one working for a Detroit newspaper. The job is incredibly difficult because the writer is always going to find themselves walking a tightrope.

When I worked at Hearst's newspaper in LA in the classified department a decision was made to move the editorial duties for both the auto and real estate sections to a separate editorial department. This department was positioned in a gray area we would probably today call the "advertorial" department. It was a good solution for the advertising folks, but probably not a great way to produce good journalism. Ironically, the head of that department may have been one of the most strict and disciplined editors at the newspaper.

Other newspapers live with the fact that the writer in charge of automotive and real estate editorial content is a compromised creature: not quite as free to treat a "review" as a thorough look at a new product, while not simply being the voice of the industry.

The deans of automotive writers used to reside in Detroit. These reporters would generally try to limit their writing to news concerning the industry, the unions and workers in that industry, and economic news that might effect the industry. Any attempt at reviewing a product would limit the scope of that review to some essentials and analysis of the place of that new vehicle in the market.

The lifespan of these writers were usually quite long -- it might surprise you to know -- because it would take a real veteran to understand the ins-and-outs of the auto industry. These writers did not see themselves as restaurant critics who needed to have some anonymity inorder to write reviews without the influence of the industry -- these writers knew this was impossible.

For this veteran of the newspaper industry, it smacks of amateurishness to be shocked that a reviewer could have their copy changed in the way described by the post on Jalopnik. Even commenters on the site have little sympathy for Burgess.

But something is wrong at the Detroit News if the editors let the original story run and did not discuss the review with the writer prior to it appearing in print. The classified advertising department is not even a player here. The nice, clean, Utopia that some journalism advocates would like to construct does not exist in the real world, and it never has -- especially when it comes to the auto section of the newspaper.