Did the Chicago Tribune stick a proverbial wet finger in the air to see which way the wind was blowing?
Some reporters at the newspaper think that may be the case. They say they believe the marketing department in recent weeks solicited subscribers' opinions on stories before they were published, a practice they said raises ethical questions, as well as legal and competitive issues.
An e-mail signed by 55 reporters and editors, sent Wednesday to Editor Gerould Kern and Managing Editor Jane Hirt and obtained Thurday by The Associated Press, questions why the newspaper was conducting the surveys and what stories were used. They also wanted to know which readers were surveyed and whether any story had been altered as a result of reader comment.
"It is a fundamental principle of journalism that we do not give people outside the newspaper the option of deciding whether or not we should publish a story, whether they be advertisers, politicians or just regular readers," the e-mail read. "Focus grouping as done in the past is one thing. But this appears to break the bond between reporters and editors in a fundamental way."
Readers were shown synopses or "dopings" of several unpublished stories, including some the staff is currently working on, according to the e-mail.
Kern, who was to meet with the news staff Thursday afternoon, issued a statement late in the day saying the newspaper had discontinued what he called "a brief market research project."
"Premature dissemination of information about stories under development compromises the reporting process," Kern said. "Our goal is to provide people with news reports that are fair, accurate and complete. Therefore, we publish stories only when they are ready ... Research is an important tool in understanding consumer needs. It provides context, and we listen to it carefully. Each day, news decisions are made by journalists."