American Pie 13.11.03

Open the Los Angeles Times on Mondays these days and you can read business stories from the Financial Times – sometimes even before an FT subscriber. Conversely an FT reader can read stories about Hollywood showbiz, courtesy of the LA Times. The New York Times these days shares its news with newspapers in India, Denmark, El Salvador and Mexico. It also has a deal with the German weekly Der Spiegel. From a business standpoint the partnerships can make sense. The FT, for example, whose US circulation is around 135,000, now has its reports seen by an extra million LA Times readers. Some of the biggest partnerships are with TV and radio stations – and that has raised the question: who gets the big story first? There have been cases lately when reporters working on a story have been pulled from their desks to appear on camera or be interviewed on radio. At The Washington Post, to avoid union problems, reporters now get $100 (£60) to $200 when this happens. Some are now asking for a wardrobe allowance. The American Newspaper Guild – US equivalent of the NUJ – fears the trend ultimately will result in a loss of competitiveness between news organisations. “Not a good trend,” said Linda Foley, the Newspaper Guild’s president.

Another trend causing disquiet here is the practice of radio and TV stations charging people who appear on interview shows. The first example that came to light here was of a chat show on a Florida TV station. Guests are interviewed as usual by a host and hostess sitting in leather chairs, with a network logo at the bottom of the screen.

The big difference: anyone who appears on the show – for a four- to six-minute interview – is expected to divvy up $2,500.

A tiny disclaimer at the end of the show reveals that some of the segments have been paid for. In other words it’s “pay for play”. Interviews produced by Sky Radio Network and shown on American Airlines’ flights cost $5,900. Again, the only clue to the advertorial is a little line at the end that says, “Guests on the show may have paid a fee to appear”. The producers of the Florida show defend what they are doing by saying, “It’s not a news programme, nor is it operated by the news department. It’s an entertainment programme.”

Editors of magazines here that test and evaluate new products are anxiously watching a court case involving Consumer Reports, the US counterpart of Which? The case stems from a report by the magazine that claimed a popular sports-utility vehicle, the Suzuki Samurai, was too dangerous to drive. Its makers allege that Consumer Reports rigged its tests to falsely show the vehicle “easily rolls over on turns”. Just letting the case go to trial with all its attendant legal costs may, it’s feared, be sufficient to discourage many publications from criticising other products.

The decision of the New York Times, under the guidance of British-born type guru Matthew Carter, to change the type it uses in its headlines – from Latin Extra Condensed and News Gothic to Times Cheltenham Extra Condensed and Bold Condensed – got a mixed reaction from readers. Some readers applauded the “face-lift”, saying it gave the newspaper a “subtly cleaner and sharper look”. But others were aghast. One reader wrote: “Going from eight to six columns made sense, as did the introduction of colour pictures. But this is too much. It’s the end of the world as we know it.”

By Jeffrey Blyth

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