Editor’s Notebook: On conflicts of interest

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My job these days defies easy description.

I’m the publisher, so that means I order the print run every week, pay the bills, maintain the website and monitor data coming in from more than a dozen different sources, as well as a thousand other little things that nobody else can do. I’m also the head paperboy, which means that I personally distribute more than a quarter of our newspapers and keep tabs on our street boxes and racks. I work in the sales department to help our clients with their marketing. I’m also still a journalist and editor, writing a couple stories every week and getting my hands into everything else we print.

Sometimes, when I veer from writing a story to a sales call, I can feel the gears shifting in my brain — which, I’m learning, is not quite as elastic as it once was. And sometimes, a simple phone call to my office line can stop me in my tracks.

I often make the joke that there’s no such thing as a conflict of interest in North Carolina. It’s a hallmark of our provinciality that professional favors so often seem to flow between people who are already connected to each other. But we don’t play that game here. We can’t.

The Society of Professional Journalists has only a couple things to say about this sort of thing in its ethical guidelines, but they are quite clear:

“Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.”

And:

“Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.”

So I can’t personally write stories about marketing clients, or sell space in our newspaper for anything besides advertising.

But during local election season it gets complicated. Because I sell marketing directly to candidates, I am conflicted out of endorsing or casting opinions on our clients’ individual actions during election season.

Which starts right about now.

Our election coverage will be handled ably by Jordan Green and Eric Ginsburg, and I’m hoping that our ethics committee, staffed by those same two guys, will clear me before the first Tuesday in November, so I can work on Election Night.

In the meantime, I will still be looking up campaign-finance reports, only for different reasons.

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