'NYT' scandal slams brand image

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Advertisers and media buyers are keeping a "serious eye" on The New York Times as the Jayson Blair scandal continues to play out, but the newspaper's president insists no advertisers have canceled commitments.

Brand experts agree the Times has taken a serious hit, but said the extent of damage to the newspaper's reputation will depend on how it deals with any further fallout.

In an e-mail exchange through a spokeswoman, President-General Manager Janet Robinson said, "there have been no [advertiser] cancellations or schedule changes as a result of this. ... We will do everything we can to reaffirm the faith of our readers."

At least one advertiser, however, has considered changing its plans. "We're using the Times for its environment of credibility. That's been eroded to some extent," said Andy Dumaine, creative director for Campbell Group, Baltimore, which represents Intercontinental Hotels. "There has been some discussion about shifting some money to other publications."

investigations continue

Journalists chin-stroked and Times foes delighted in the aftermath of the Blair affair, in which a young, charismatic reporter was found to have plagiarized or falsified at least 36 stories.

Ms. Robinson also wrote "other stories on this matter continue to appear in the Times." A Times spokeswoman confirmed investigations of other Times reporters' work, gleaned from tips that came in after the Blair story ran, had begun, but said nothing "appeared to warrant any action" yet. The paper continues to investigate Mr. Blair's work.

"What we'll have to do is wait and see how serious the problem really is, and how they deal with their issues," said Steve Greenberger, senior VP-director of print media at Zenith Media, New York, who added his firm would keep "a serious eye" on the matter.

Ms. Robinson said "by and large" advertisers the Times had contact with "have applauded our candor." The Times reported ad revenue fell 1% for April, compared with the same period the year before, but year-to-date ad revenue was up 2.6% to $381.4 million.

Crisis-management executives report that the Times handled the situation according to PR 101-mostly. The Times moved quickly "to take control of the situation," said Tom Barritt, global director of Ketchum's Issues and Crisis Network. "The best message they can send advertisers is `we have a sense of control."'

gap `too wide'

The Times did this via an extraordinary four-page-plus review of Mr. Blair's misdeeds, which occupied prime Sunday real estate May 11. But Washington Post Co.'s Newsweek and Tribune Co.'s Newsday later in the week reported first other Times investigations. And one media-savvy PR executive spotted a failing in the Times' moves.

"The gap between public and internal [communication] was way too wide," said Lou Colasuonno, a partner at New York's Westhill Partners and former top editor of the New York Daily News and New York Post. "That let it percolate internally and fester."

Journalism scandals have hit the likes of the Washington Post, Dow Jones & Co.'s Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Co.-owned Boston Globe among many others, with no apparent lasting ill brand effects.

But the Times' black eye is arguably larger, involving a series of false or plagiarized stories, and even has led to musings that Executive Editor Howell Raines' rocky 20-month reign was responsible for a newsroom that let Mr. Blair's errors compound. And it erupts at a time when media-on-media coverage is more avid than ever.

As such, the tumult over the paper and its brand has risen, not faded, since the Times published its May 11 piece.

"You will see the volume going up," Mr. Barritt said. "It is much like many other reputational crises we've seen over the last several years," although he said the Times' active role mitigated the impact.

"There is no silver bullet," agreed Mr. Colasuonno. "You can't make this go away." He felt that the brand damage was still "minimal," but said additional revelations could nullify all bets. "There is a limit to what even The New York Times can take in terms of bad stories."

If circulation were to slip, advertisers would likely reconsider their schedules, but most media buyers don't believe readership will be affected. The Times weekday circulation was down 5.3% for the six months ending March 31, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations figures.

"The [Times'] name means something-it's a quintessential brand," said George Janson, director-print at Mediaedge:cia, who continues to buy ads in the paper. "If people start questioning that, that's not a very good thing for them."

In sum: The Times' many gardens need tending. Asked if the May 14 town hall meeting of Times editorial staffers and management had eased newsroom anger, one said it hadn't: "The volcano still wants a body."

contributing: valerie block of crain's new york business

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