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11.06.2004

A letter to the Chronicle Tribune

Finally, I've had some time to write a letter to the editor of the Marion Chronicle Tribune. I'll let everyone know when (if) I get a response. I sent it less than five minutes ago.

Ms. Pearson,

As a journalist, I have some concerns over the way you cover Taylor University in your newspaper. Routinely, you place articles about the school in the paper written by Jim Garinger, the university's Director of News Services. Mr. Garinger works for University Relations, the school's marketing / public relations arm.

How many other public relations firms or company marketing arms do you allow to place news articles directly into your paper as though they were written by one of you own, objective reporters? Why is Taylor University an exception?

Do you solicit articles on specific events at Taylor, or are they suggested to you by Mr. Garinger and the marketing team? Is Mr. Garinger paid for these articles as though he were a stringer? Or do you simply provide the school with free advertising? Should you not reject news / advertising hybrids like this to protect the editorial independence of your paper -- or is that not important to the Chronicle-Tribune? Is this not an extreme conflict of interest? Does this relationship with University Relations and Mr. Garinger affect your decisions about legitimate coverage of the university when the need arises? How can it not?

Do you make any attempt, other than a small bio line at the bottom of the articles, to differentiate between Mr. Garinger's articles about Taylor and objective news content in your paper?

I look forward to your answers to these questions.

I think the real point is if the paper gives this privilege to any other organization, and if so -- there are serious concerns about the paper's credibility. If not, then why is Taylor special?

11.03.2004

More press

These links were e-mailed me tonight. They were in publications that I hadn't yet seen (surprise).

Gannett's Ethics Statment

It mirrors the SPJ's in almost everyway. This is the best I could find, because the Chronicle doesn't list an ethics code on its website (though the Muncie Star Press, also owned by Gannett, does). Here's some of what Gannett says:

  • We will be honest in the way we gather, report and present news.
  • We will be persistent in the pursuit of the whole story.
  • We will strive to include all sides relevant to a story and not take sides in news coverage.
  • We will remain free of outside interests, investments or business relationships that may compromise the credibility of our news report.
  • We will maintain an impartial, arm's length relationship with anyone seeking to influence the news.
  • We will avoid potential conflicts of interest and eliminate inappropriate influence on content.
  • We will be free of improper obligations to news sources, newsmakers and advertisers.
  • We will differentiate advertising from news.
I find it hard to reconcile all that with a newspaper that uses a "reporter" to write about an organization that he works for and who is charged with "promotion of Taylor University events, people and programs to the news media." Do we really think he'll pursue all sides of the story? Or would he be compelled to report only the positives? Would the "whole story" be on his agenda like it should be on the paper's? Is the paper not "taking sides" by using his reporting? Isn't this a tie to "outside interests" and "business relationships" that may affect real coverage and their duty to inform the public? Is Taylor seeking to influence the news? If so, shouldn't they maintain an "impartial, arm's length relationship" with the school? Is this an appropriate "influence on content?" What kind of obligation does this produce in regard to the paper's relationship with the school? Isn't this just advertising wrapped up to look like news?

Those are questions that deserve answers. And I happen to know that at least one person from the Chronicle has visited the site so far today. I wonder if they'll have any response.

The Chronicle's Conflict

The Marion Chronicle Tribune, a daily newspaper owned by Gannett (the moguls behind USA Today) routinely places press releases from Taylor as "news" on its pages.

These items are primarily written and bylined by Jim Garringer, the university's Director of News Services (not real sure what that title means, actually). Here's the problem, either he's a journalist or a publicist. Clearly, he's the latter -- he works in University Relations and I don't think the university hedges on that. But as a publicist, he's not an objective observer, and the Marion Chronicle violates standards of journalistic ethics by passing him off as such.

Take, for example the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics: "Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two," and "Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting," and "Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived," and "Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility."

Yet his articles are placed in news content pages right alongside other news items written by real reporters.

And the one I'm following today: "Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media."

11.02.2004

The word

I've received one or two e-mails from Taylor alumni recently and I'd like to get more -- I'd like to make sure Taylor students and prospective students are reading this. If you're a Taylor grad or student or know someone who is, then pass this site on (those envelopes at the bottom of the posts are convenient ways to e-mail the site to friends). Though I work as a professional investigative reporter, my ability to gather information is hampered by a criminal trespass order from Taylor's lawyers (more on that later).

Numbers don't tell the whole story

Taylor boasts its rankings in college surveys quite a lot. Most schools do; if they rank high enough the listing becomes a badge of honor. But I don't think the numbers provide the whole story.

First, those statistics are provided by the schools themselves. To my knowledge, there is virtually no auditing of the numbers provided. Most of the rankings work by using data from the Common Data Set Initiative. It's a standardized survey that schools are requested to answer. When I was at Taylor, the people primarily responsible for these surveys where an admissions officer and a student admissions intern (I was one, but was responsible for managing CREW, the admission student staff -- I never touched the surveys).

Now, for the numbers. One strikes me as a bit odd -- Taylor's alumni giving rate is 37 percent. It might seem low, but it's one of the highest (if not the highest) rates published in the survey. And though it's weighted the lowest as a factor in overall rankings, it is a "proxy" of alumni satisfaction with the school, according to US News. Now US News says that this rate is an average of the number of eligible alumni and the number that gave any amount of money to the university over a two year period.

Now, for how Taylor makes that number so high. Though I didn't go to my commencement (I avoided it because of the hostility from administrators and the professors in my own department) I still received a letter from the development office. In it was a two dollar bill that I was asked to send back to the school. At commencement, graduating students each gave a dollar back to the school (that I believe was also provided by the school). The idea is that each year, you double your gift (hence the two dollar bill). This year, I should be sending in four dollars (though that two dollar bill is still in my wallet).

What does all this mean? That at least some, if not most, of the money given by those eligible alumni is actually money that the University already had or at the very least facilitated getting it into the hands of its graduating seniors (I'm still trying to figure out where it comes from, probably from the William Taylor Foundation - the money comes from a private benefactor). That's not a valid proxy of anything. A true alumni giving rate would reflect the amount of their own money alumni give back to the school. An even truer alumni giving rate would reflect how many give back money without being prodded by the development office or Taylor's "student ambassadors" (glorified telemarketers).

What I would like to see from Taylor is this -- the average amount of money given by alumni (my guess is that it's $2), a statistical breakdown of how many years alumni give and continue give, etc., and the exact accounting of how much of Taylor's alumni giving rate is composed of students merely funneling back that two dollar bill. But then, there are a lot of things I'd like to see from Taylor.

Taylor Salaries

These salaries may very well be deserved and commensurate with the employee's experiences and services to the University. I make no judgement on that. What's striking to me, is that almost all of these employees have larger benefit / derferred compensation packages than I owe on student loans or will report as income on my tax return this year. Here is what Taylor paid its officers in 2002:

  • David Gyertson, President:
    $152,500 / $39,710 benefit package, has expense account
  • Daryl Yost, Provost & Executive VP:
    $170,558 / $38,345 bp, has expense account
  • Dwight Jessup, VP Academic Affairs:
    $97,000 / $28,798 bp, has expense account
  • Harold Hazen, VP University Adcancement:
    $97,000 / 28,978 bp, has expense account
  • Wynn Lembright, VP Student Affiars:
    $81,000 / $25,653 bp, has expense account
  • Ron Sutherland, VP Business & Finance:
    $85,575 / $26,553 bp, has expense account
  • Steve Bedi, VP Administration and Planning:
    $85,575 / $26, 552 bp, has expense account
These were the top 5 paid non-officers:
  • Henry Voss, Prof. & Director Science Reasearch and Trainging:
    $98,515 / $24,003 bp, has expense account
  • Paul Patterson, Prof & Coach, & Basketball Camp Director:
    $96,158 / $23,988 bp, has expense account
  • Roger Jenkinson, Professor:
    $71,858 / $21,963 bp, has expense account
  • Jessica Rousselow-Winquist, Professor:
    $69,548 / $22,528 bp, has expense account
  • Charlotte Binkley, Manager, WBCL:
    $68,541 / $23,224 bp, has expense account
The only two women on the list are also the bottom earners amongst the top-paid employees. Another interesting thing that came up in my research: In 1999, Terry Wise (who I assume is a man), then VP for CLL, made $32,786. The next year, he made $75,065. That's nearly a 130 percent increase over his original salary. The next year, 2001, he received $80,125. He was gone by 2002 and they list no officer for CLL that year.

All but very few of the people above lived and/or live in Upland, Ind., Grant County (2 lived in Ft. Wayne, I believe, 1 in Hartford City). In 2002, an average household of about three people (with probably more than one income) earned, on average, about $42,000 in Upland. That average is no doubt kicked up by our six-figure friends above, as Upland is a very small town.

Dr. Gyertson is required to live in University housing and isn't charged for its use. The school's functional budget doesn't have a specific line item to cover the expense accounts of the employee's listed, but in 2002 it did list a total of $545,239 as entertainment / meals expenses. More than $1.2 million was paid for travel and over $5.6 million is simply listed as "other expenses." The university spent a total of $51.4 million in 2002, 16 of which went to employee salaries. Program service revenues brought in $45.3 million; program service expenses were $40.6 million.

2003 information should be available soon.