News & Analysis

In these hard economic times, can journalistic integrity survive?

Since the economy went in the old Dumpster® in 2008, we have watched companies (including ourselves) and race teams struggle to survive with less income and fewer employees. We have especially noted the decline of print newspapers and magazines, and the shift to the Internet and social media.

The management of the Racing Net Source LLC group of publications have watched with alarm as the next generation of publishers moves into the “buy an ad, get an article” model.

As veteran print journalists, we have always tried to keep the advertising and editorial sides of our magazines separate, not allowing advertisers to dictate the information we offer our readers nor to muzzle our opinions. We see our responsibility as providing information to our readers, stating our opinions, and then letting the readers decide for themselves what they think. They don’t have to agree with us, but at least we all should have a free and open discussion.

Over the years we have lost advertisers because they didn’t like something one of our writers (OK, usually Jeff Burk) had to say. That seems a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face, since the point of advertising is to reach new customers and sell products. Getting your company’s message in front of the largest amount of potential buyers would seem to be the best way to do that. But it is the advertisers’ prerogative to cancel advertising for whatever reason seems important to them.

However, recently USA Today and the IndyCar Series announced a deal that troubles us more than our own economic problems and may set a precedent for journalism in general.

As part of a deal announced Feb. 26, USA Today has agreed to write pre- and post-race stories for every IndyCar race and to produce special sections around the sport and its drivers. The news organization also agreed to expand its coverage of IndyCar on In return, IndyCar promised to give USA Today reporters preferred access to series officials, team owners and drivers, and track owners.

IndyCar also promised to give USA Today advertising sales representatives access to its series and team sponsors. USA Today, IndyCar officials said, will be invited to a number of “sponsor summits” and other networking events.

Some of the advertisements and stories will run in tandem, and USA Today has promised to give IndyCar sponsors discounted ad rates in both print and digital publications.

While it will be good for IndyCar to get increased coverage for their series and for USA Today to increase ad revenue, we can’t help but wonder what this does to each in the long run. We think it puts the credibility of both into question in the minds of the fans.

Since USA Today will be paid by the IndyCar Series, will only “good news” stories be run? Features that only portray the series in a positive light, with no independent viewpoint or criticism allowed? Will it turn into a house organ for the series? Will series sponsors – now USA Today advertisers – be able to “suggest” or veto certain story ideas?

“When you make a deal that ties coverage to advertising and marketing in a way that can erode journalistic independence, you have a serious ethical issue,” Bob Steele of the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., told the Indianapolis Business Journal. “Readers must be confident that all news reporting is driven by journalistic principles and ethical standards and not by business values. This relationship certainly raises at the minimum a yellow flag and perhaps some serious red flags.”

We are not naïve enough to think this kind of quid pro quo deal has not been done before, but we believe this partnership is an unsettling and bad example for journalists, who need to be able to point out when the emperor has no clothes – whether the emperor likes to hear it or not.

We want to assure you that we think about this issue and our responsibilities both to our readers and to our advertisers. It’s a balancing act and we will continue to walk that tightrope to the best of our ability, maintaining our independent voice for the betterment of drag racing.