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2 papers claim same reporters as their own

Knight Ridder newsrooms get most mileage from Sacramento bylines


One reporter, two titles, one story, 6/3/04.

In printing an incisive story about Gov. Schwarzenegger's Indian gambling initiative Wednesday by Kate Folmar, the Contra Costa Times demonstrated a commitment to news from Sacramento. But her byline, "By Kate Folmar, Times Sacramento Bureau," gives an inflated impression of the paper's presence in the state capital.

Curiously, the San Jose Mercury News, which is also owned by the Knight Ridder company, ran the same story on the front page. Only there, she was "Kate Folmar, Mercury News Sacramento Bureau."

Yes, it is the same Kate Folmar. And no, she is not tricking her editors by drawing two paychecks. Each paper claims her work -- and that of the other five capital reporters -- as its own, without reminding the reader that the bureau is shared. The Mercury News does the same thing, dubbing the Times' longtime man in Sacramento, "Andrew LaMar, Mercury News Sacramento Bureau."

The arrangement raises two kinds of questions. One is ethical: Is it deceptive to claim reporters on someone else's payroll? The second has to do with news quality: Does cooperating, instead of competing, improve coverage?

Ethics vs. economics

In the battle for audience and advertisers, news media often try to create the illusion that they are bigger than they are. Because some readers and viewers dismiss broadly disseminated "wire copy" as cookie-cutter news, newsrooms are eager to deliver material that appears "exclusive," even when it isn't. Regardless of how newspapers deploy their resources, they all have an economic incentive to give readers the impression the stories were tailored for them.

From the standpoint of journalism ethics, however, even a minor deception puts press credibility at risk at a time when less and less of the public believes what it reads. And when two papers take credit for the work of the same reporters, it could also blur the lines of journalistic responsibility.

"With whom do the reporters' loyalties lie?" wondered Aly Colón, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a non-profit independent school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. "The reporters and editors may say, well, our loyalties are to both communities. And that may be true. But the more transparent you can be about what you're doing, the better. I would wonder, a little bit, that some people would think that the byline of those reporters means they work specifically and unilaterally for those papers."

John Armstrong, editor of the Contra Costa Times, said he was too busy to discuss his paper's byline policy.

Susan Goldberg, the executive editor of the Mercury News, said both papers oversee their joint Sacramento bureau, so they can legitimately claim the state capital reporters as their own. "There's no subterfuge here," she said. While Sacramento articles may go out to other papers across the country belonging to the Knight Ridder chain, only editors at the Mercury News and the Times can tell the reporters what to cover.

Still, such byline swapping appears to defy the spirit of the Mercury News' ethics policy, revised last month, which under the section titled "Transparency" directs the staff to "accurately convey to readers the source of our reporting." Last summer, in response to fabrication and plagiarism scandals at the New York Times and elsewhere, the paper launched a wide-ranging revision of policies regarding attribution, anonymous sources and bylines. The paper tackled all kinds of editorial minutiae, including discouraging the use of ellipses and parentheses inside quotations, for fear of taking sources out of context.

That's when the paper revised its "credit line" policy, saying it would no longer identify as "Mercury News" employees of Knight Ridder and other papers in the chain. Reporters in the company's Washington bureau or papers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Miami Herald were suddenly stripped of the title "Mercury News (fill in the blank) Bureau." They are now dubbed simply "Knight Ridder."

The paper, which previously had claimed more than a half-dozen "bureaus" around the world, was reduced to one -- Mercury News staff writer Ben Stocking, based in Vietnam. Last fall Grade the News awarded the paper a "bouquet" for its efforts to deal honestly with the readers. But since then, the Sacramento bureaus of the Contra Costa Times and the Mercury News merged, and the transparency initiative clouded over somewhat.

"Every news organization puffs up its commercial chest in ways that technically aren't true," said Peter Sussman, a former editor at the San Francisco Chronicle who helped to write the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. "In this instance both papers appear to be engaging in such minor commercially driven fictions.

"But," Mr. Sussman added, "I can't see that the reader suffers as a result."

Tom Johnson, a journalism professor at San Francisco State University, takes a different view: "Why not cut the crap and just call it the Knight Ridder Sacramento Bureau?"

News quality: 1 + 1 = ?

The sharing of credit for Sacramento bureau reporters became an issue around the beginning of 2004, as the Mercury News and the Times melded their capital offices under the flag of Knight Ridder, which owns both papers and 29 other dailies across the country. Two other California subsidiaries, the Monterey County Herald and the San Luis Obispo Tribune, are also part of the deal, but so far they have not contributed personnel.

Ms. Goldberg said the two Bay Area newsrooms sought efficiencies where they did not exist before; Knight Ridder has owned the Times for nine years but is only now restructuring California government coverage. The change does not augur a more extensive merger of the staffs, she said.

"We're joining two bureaus," she said. "We see news from the capital as an increasingly important story. With the new administration we thought it was essential to coordinate what we do and improve the coverage. What sense does it make to have two people go to the same press conference? Those reporters can now cover different stories."

As the newspaper industry continues to consolidate, journalists have argued both sides of the debate over whether chain ownership is good for coverage. The Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times have shared stories for years, but they still compete with each other on some stories considered worth the resources. Each paper, for example, has its own reporters in Redwood City covering the Scott Peterson murder trial on a nearly daily basis.

Prof. Johnson agreed with Ms. Goldberg that capital bureau efficiency is paramount in a state as large and complicated as California. Although there is merit in having reporters from different publications compete for the same stories, in this state there are enough stories to go around, he said.

Ms. Goldberg explained that Knight Ridder was not consolidating to save money. The combined bureau is actually greater than the sum of its parts: It has four Mercury News reporters and one Times reporter (For the record, Ms. Folmar is still a Mercury News employee). In addition, Daniel Borenstein, formerly the Times political editor, now works for Knight Ridder as the bureau's editor. However, the Times said Mr. Borenstein "heads the Times' Sacremento bureau."

"Both papers have input into the news coverage through me," Mr. Borenstein said. "They work together. I'm constantly talking with both the Merc and the CCT, and as a result we are able to do some really quality enterprise stories." He cited the work of Mercury News reporter Dion Nissenbaum, who two months ago wrote an exhaustive campaign finance report that put a lie to the governor's campaign pledge last fall not to accept "special interest money." ("Governor's evolving rules on donors; Some OK, others not: Schwarzenegger insists he can't be bought," April 5.) That kind of time-consuming investigative work would be harder to do without the specialization and person-power that the combined bureau affords, Mr. Borenstein said.

Ubiquitous obfuscations

The Mercury News and the Times are by no means the only newsrooms in the Bay Area to make their bylines go further, and take credit for shared or outside work. The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, frequently rewrites and adds to Associated Press stories, attributing them to "Chronicle News Services." All that means is that the Chronicle, like hundreds of other newspapers, subscribes to those wires.

Some local television newscasts also play games by obscuring the institutional affiliations of their reporters. One station took a live feed from a reporter in Southern California, had the evening anchors chat with him on the screen, and neglected to mention that he really worked for CNN. It was up to the viewers to decipher that fact.

The Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times both have large staffs of talented reporters. The two newsrooms may in fact be better than one. But if the merger of the Sacramento bureaus is an improvement, so far the innovation has not been made quite clear to readers.

 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the Contra Costa Times' description of Dan Borenstein's job. Mr. Borenstein "heads the Times' Sacramento bureau"; he is not "bureau chief."

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