Is the Birmingham Business Alliance requiring “pay for play” for media access?


By Wade Kwon

The Birmingham Business Alliance has had much news to share of late, from recent hires to position statements on the ongoing Jefferson County financial crisis.

Birmingham Business AllianceBut its preferred method of sharing has raised my hackles as a journalist: members first, media second.

(Note: I co-own Birmingham media outlet Magic City Post, which is a member of the Birmingham Business Alliance.)

I discovered that the Birmingham Business Alliance routinely, and as a matter of policy, sends news releases to its members before media outlets. But not all media outlets, as it turns out.

It gives news outlets that are members the advantage in publishing breaking news online, as the lag time can range from minutes to hours.

I pointed this out to David Rickey, senior vice president of communications, in an email:

“I don’t think media should be pay-for-play to receive newsletters from the Business Alliance. If media outlets get information faster simply because they are members, that is ethically untenable.”

The practice of paying for news coverage, pay for play, is usually frowned upon for news outlets. It does happen, especially in the highly competitive market for TV news magazines and morning shows.

Rickey’s response:

“Your remark about media pay for play is out of bounds. Our philosophy is to notify our investors — whether corporate CEO, small business person, social media guru or television GM — as a courtesy about announcements from BBA.”

I had suggested two possible solutions:

  1. That media outlets receive notices at the same time.
  2. Or that media outlets be included as investors without cost.

I received no further comment on those suggestions.

I wrote a letter to Brian Hilson, who became Birmingham Business Alliance president and chief executive officer in March. I raised the issue of pay for play, even though as an alliance member, we would benefit unfairly from this policy.

Hilson’s response:

“The BBA’s process of providing news and information to BBA investors first and other media later is a logical method that we will continue to follow. It is not, as you termed it, ‘unethical.’ ”

In checking with other chambers of commerce, all sent news releases to media outlets first or while simultaneously notifying members.

I asked Kelly McBride, senior faculty member in ethics at journalism training center the Poynter Institute, what she thought.

McBride’s response:

“It’s hardly fair to charge for access to news. If they were a government organization, they couldn’t do that. But as a private group, they can do whatever they want.

“But it’s really up to the news organizations to stand up to it, because it’s their principles that are being violated.

“There would be a way that all the news orgs could get together and agree to receive the press releases at the same time, regardless of their membership. Or all the news orgs could simply resign in protest.

“But it’s not really the Business Alliance’s responsibility to stand up for journalism values. It’s the responsibility of the journalism organizations.”

The media outlets that are Birmingham Business Alliance members:

  • Magazines: Birmingham Magazine, B-Metro Magazine, Lindy’s Sports Annuals;
  • Newspapers: The Alabama Baptist, Birmingham Business Journal, the Birmingham News, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., Latino News;
  • Radio stations: Citadel, Cox;
  • Television stations: ABC 33/40, Alabama Public Television, Alabama’s 13, CBS 42, Fox 6, WPXH.

Though my own outlet shares in the benefit of getting Birmingham Business Alliance news ahead of non-member outlets, it rubs me the wrong way. The chamber may not want to call it pay for play, but any media outlet not paying at least $350 a year for membership is at a disadvantage.

Also:

Wade Kwon is a co-founder of Media of Birmingham and a Birmingham journalist for 24 years.

What do you think? Should the Birmingham Business Alliance change its news release policy? Is it pay for play? Should media outlets speak up, even if it means losing a competitive advantage?

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4 responses to “Is the Birmingham Business Alliance requiring “pay for play” for media access?

  1. Wade,

    I do not think they are at fault here. They are not a publicly owned entity nor are they the Chamber of Commerce for the City of Birmingham. They are funded solely by the investors and have a responsibility to their shareholders (or investors as they call them) to report news before it happens. It is not a pay to play attitude – its informing its members of a private company the matters occurring to that private company.

    Anyone is able to be an investor and by no means are they restricted from being a member of the BBA.

    • I disagree, for the reasons listed in the post.

      If they could show that their investors have demanded to see the news ahead of the media, that might help their case. But as an investor myself, I would want to see news distributed quickly and ethically — after all, if I’m paying for it, I’d want it in as many media outlets as possible.

  2. Sadly, I think it’s commonly held mentality in the business world that because you pay for something you should get special treatment, especially in news media coverage. This mentality does not play out in the long run. If news media outlets all subscribed to the “pay for play” business model, our newspapers, magazines and other news sources would be filled with nothing but articles about large corporations and businesses that have the money to pay for advertising, memberships, etc. News media outlets have enough stuggles of their own without having to sacrifice journalism integrity.

  3. Not good practice, imho. If a media outlet is part of a newsmaking organization, one that is already suspect regarding certain plans that appear to benefit some members more than others, maybe it should not belong at all.

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