Consultants to blame for USA Today scandal?

Consultants to blame for USA Today scandal?
Here is a thoughtful piece from the New York Observer that suggests news(paper) consultants contributed to the atmosphere at USA Today that led to the Jack Kelley scandal by turning the news into a “brand.” TV news people will recognize this immediately.

Nobody knows whether the great institution of the free press in America is being shackled (sorry, restructured) by self-proclaimed experts who don’t know what they’re doing…

…the impressive 28-page report, written by three respected independent journalists commissioned by USA Today, on the Jack Kelley scandal. A report that doesn’t excuse Mr. Kelley’s responsibility for his fabrications, but demonstrates how his privileged status as a marketing tool—as a personification of “the brand,” as USA Today’s publisher called the newspaper—made him virtually immune to critical scrutiny.

The outside report, written by actual newsmen (Bill Kovach, John Seigenthaler and Bill Hilliard), also demonstrates how a standard management practice such as the “performance review”—supposedly designed to rationalize and humanize potentially arbitrary judgments—became the chief instrument in creating a “climate of fear” that stifled those who raised questions about Mr. Kelley’s fabrications—questions that might threaten the brand.

It’s pretty easy to sit back and pass judgement on news consultants. I’ve done plenty myself, but the truth is that the things these folks have recommended over the years have been implemented — not because station managers wanted to jump on the fad train — but because they “worked” in terms of growing an audience (or stealing it from competitors). The net effect may not been very positive, but the news IS a business, and as one of my contemporaries once said, “Little did we know when we became a profit center that one day we’d have to play by the rules.” ~sigh~

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