BOB GARFIELD: A couple of weeks ago, the editor of a weekly Georgia newspaper got a call that really annoyed him. It was from a PR firm representing Wal-Mart, and it was offering interviews aimed at improving the mega-store's tarnished image. Jackson Herald editor Mike Buffington, who also happens to be president of the National Newspapers Association, an organization of community newspapers, wasn't interested. He felt that Wal-Mart, which has done very little local newspaper advertising, was looking for favors in all the wrong places. Buffington shot off an irate letter to Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott that has since circulated widely. In it, he asks, "Why is it that community newspapers in America are good enough to help you fend off critics with free PR, but we're not good enough for your paid advertising?" Here to discuss the flap is the angry newspaperman himself, Mike Buffington. Welcome to On the Media.
MIKE BUFFINGTON: Good to be here, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Mike. Tell me about this phone call and what precisely bugged you about it.
MIKE BUFFINGTON: Well, it was actually an email, and it came from a PR firm in Atlanta that Wal-Mart had retained to contact newspapers about their nationwide PR campaign, and given that Wal-Mart has basically ignored local newspapers, community newspapers, across America, I thought it was strange that they were now turning to us and wanting us to help them get out of a jam.
BOB GARFIELD: I thought journalism was all about separating the advertising side from the editorial side and that no editorial decision is supposed to be based in any way on what's going on, on the business side.
MIKE BUFFINGTON: Well, I don't think it's a quid pro quo arrangement at all, even though I'm sure some people might read that into it. But Wal-Mart has basically insulted community newspapers. One of their top executives was interviewed back in the fall, and she made the observation that they love having their employees' pictures in local newspapers for good PR, and if that's the case, then if they do value us, then why not occasionally show that in some other ways besides asking for something for free?
BOB GARFIELD: Because news is free. Because editorial judgments are supposed to be made based on their news value and nothing else. You've said that you don't regard this as a quid pro quo, and yet what you're expressing to me is exactly that - that, having abandoned the small newspapers as an advertising medium, Wal-Mart has surrendered the right to get coverage, favorable or otherwise.
MIKE BUFFINGTON: That's not what I'm saying at all. In fact, in one of our newspapers today we have a letter to the editor praising Wal-Mart for helping with some charity events, and we do a lot of stories related to what Wal-Mart does in the community, and we don't get advertising from Wal-Mart. But I think there's a difference between, and, and a real distinction between public relations and news, and in my view, in our market, what they wanted us to do was public relations and not news.
BOB GARFIELD: But every single day, I imagine, you get flacked by some organization or another or its proxies in PR firms. Don't you get other press releases that you go, yeah, that's a pretty good idea, and let's take a look at this story?
MIKE BUFFINGTON: Sure. And sometimes there's a nugget of an idea there that does lead to a pretty good news story. But we do get a lot of news releases that never see the light of day in print because they are not really substantial news. It's public relations. And that's kind of how I read what Wal-Mart was trying to do in, in contacting community newspapers, was to manipulate us in a way that I felt was rather insulting.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me put the question to you this way: community newspapers, deservedly or undeservedly, do not have the finest reputation in the newspaper business, because it is widely known that at some papers - I have no idea what percentage - in order to get favorable coverage for your local business, you are expected to be first in advertising. It's kind of a throwback to the bad old days, but nonetheless, it persists. When the president of the National Newspapers Association states a case which looks an awful lot like quid pro quo, aren't you damning your entire membership with an image that would do all of your members well to break away from?
MIKE BUFFINGTON: I think your premise is wrong. I think most community newspapers in America today are more professional than that. We get pressure sometimes from advertisers to run news releases that really don't meet the standard of news, and, and if they don't meet the standard of news, we don't run 'em. And that's certainly not what I was saying. What I was saying is that Wal-Mart ignores community newspapers in this country, to a large extent, until they want something for free, and then they turn to us to try to help them out of, out of this jam with their critics in a way that I felt was very manipulative.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, well, let's leave it there. Mike, I thank you so much for joining us.
MIKE BUFFINGTON: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Mike Buffington is the president of the National Newspapers Association, an organization representing 3200 community newspapers. He's also editor and co-publisher of the Jackson Herald, and an owner of Mainstream Newspapers Incorporated.