How Reporting Bad News Involving a Sales Partner Strains the RelationshipA decade ago, your newspaper's sales department signed a partnership agreement with the city-owned zoo, which is a major attraction in your community. Your paper features activities at the zoo, naming contests for baby animals and provides funding for educational programs for children.
For years, you've reaped the benefits of having this community involvement. But suddenly, a national zoo accreditation organization decides to yank your city's zoo accreditation because it says the exhibits are substandard and could endanger the animals' health.
Issues in Reporting Bad News Involving a Sales PartnerWithin moments of the zoo losing its national accreditation, zoo leaders and city council members are on the phone asking you for favors. They know the news is bad, but they want your paper to remind readers of all the good the zoo has brought the community over the past 70 years. "Wouldn't a feature article be great, how about on the front page?" they ask.
You tell them that you've produced dozens of features on the zoo, but today's story is how the city will respond to this crisis. The front page you have planned includes stories on the specific problems at the zoo, a piece explaining accreditation, a sidebar article on whether local animal rights experts agree that the zoo has issues and an investigation on whether taxpayer money should be used to operate a zoo in the first place.
That gets the mayor on the phone to say that he won't give your paper any more interviews unless you give her a break. After all, the mayor says, the community depends on this zoo for tourism. Your sales department says the relationship with the zoo is too important to lose.
Solutions in Reporting Bad News Involving a Sales PartnerThe political nature of this partnership makes finding a solution especially difficult. A mayor can threaten you and even cut off access as a way to punish your newspaper for covering a legitimate story and spread word among your sales clients that your paper doesn't care about the community.
Your paper's relationship with city government is key in solving this dilemma. Because this deal is a decade old, chances are the mayor and council members weren't in office when the partnership was forged. Explain to them that the news will get out no matter how your newspaper handles its coverage, so hiding will not make the problem go away.
Offer to interview the mayor and council members at length on how they will either fight back against the loss of accreditation or how they will make changes to improve the zoo. Those are stories that you would do anyway, but they may see them as opportunities to showcase their leadership. That alone may soothe their anger.
Because this will be a long-term story in your city, tell the elected officials that you want to focus news coverage on making the zoo better and getting the accreditation restored. Again, those are stories that you already have planned, but they can be sold on the idea that you want to turn a negative story into something positive.
Never make promises to ignore negative aspects of any news story. You can promise, as any journalist would, that you will seek out their response to the bad news. But if they choose not to respond, that will not kill the article. Make sure your sales department understands this key principle of journalism.