UPDATE 10:00 AM
FAMU journalism professor and former Tallahassee Democrat reporter Doug Blackburn has responded, via Facebook, to TR’s article about Mr. Blackburn being paid by FAMU while covering FAMU as a reporter.
“It is bizarre beyond words that Steve Stewart would have the gall to question my integrity as a journalist. I covered FSU and FAMU fairly, honestly and in-depth for six years. As for FAMU, I reported on the suspension of the Marching 100, sororities being placed on suspended status due to hazing charges, the abrupt resignation of a president, the university being placed on probation by SACS. Is this someone who was compromised in any way?”
It appears Mr. Blackburn is defending the payment arrangement based on his unbiased reporting.
Mr. Fred Brown, a former editor at the Denver Post and listed as an ethics expert by the Society for Professional Journalists, told TR that it is a “clear conflict of interest for a reporter to be paid by the institution he is covering.”
TR is still seeking comment from the Tallahassee Democrat and Gannett Corporation.
Tallahassee Reports has learned that while working as a reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat and covering Florida A&M University (FAMU), Doug Blackburn was also being paid by FAMU as an adjunct professor.
Public records obtained by TR indicates that Blackburn was paid $3,000 from September 23, 2011 to December 30,2011 and an additional $3,000 from September 19,2014 to December 24, 2014.
The public record can be viewed here.
Blackburn left the Tallahassee Democrat around January 16, 2015 and took a full time job with FAMU. He is currently listed on their website as an Associate Professor in the Journalism Department.
A review of the Tallahassee Democrat archives reveals Blackburn wrote or participated in writing 15 articles related to FAMU from September 23, 2011 to December 30, 2011 and another 15 articles from September 19, 2014 to December 24, 2014.
Since 2011, a search reveals Blackburn was involved with over 400 reports related to FAMU.
The Tallahassee Democrat is owned by Gannett Corporation. Gannett’s ethics policy, which was published in February, 2012 states in part:
Directors, officers and employees will not have any outside interest, investment or business relationship that dilutes their loyalty to the Company or dedication to the principle of a free and impartial press.
The policy also states:
Each director, officer and employee is expected to report what he or she believes in good faith are violations of the law or Company policy, whether accidental or deliberate, by any Gannett director, officer, employee or a person acting on behalf of Gannett. If you become aware of any conflict, relationship, payment or other action, involving yourself or others, which could violate these policies, it is your obligation to disclose the matter fully and in writing to your supervisors or as set forth in the Ethics Violation Reporting Policy.
The complete document can be read here.
Tallahassee Reports has sent an email seeking comment from the Tallahassee Democrat.
It is important to note the current publisher of the Tallahassee Democrat was hired by Gannett on January 12, 2015. Mr. Blackburn left the Democrat on January 16, 2015.
The Executive Editor at the Tallahassee Democrat during Mr. Blackburn’s employment was Bob Gabordi. He transferred to another Gannett paper as of January 12, 2015.
Journalistic ethics? When did the Democrat ever concern itself with those pesky ethics?
My how things have changed: in the early ‘80s the Tallahassee Democrat fired one of their entertainment writers just because he failed to mention that he played bass in one of the bands that performed at a weekend event he did a write-up on in the Friday Limelight section of the paper.
Imagine, if you will, that Steve Stewart goes to work in the City Manager’s office, but continues to write articles critical of the city government. Problem?
If your answer is No, then you have a fundamental lack of comprehension of the concept of “conflict of interest.” You do not understand that potential harm, even in the absence of actual harm, is a conflict of interest and, therefore, an ethical lapse.
Mr. Blackburn has written some excellent articles on the many issues at FAMU, but that is not the standard by which his actions must be viewed. No one questions his writing skills, only his clear ethical breach by writing articles about FAMU while employed by the university. Whether or not his objectivity, the content, or breadth, or direction or implications of any of those articles were influenced by the fact that his adjunct professor was subject to termination by the university, will probably never be known with any certainty. Therein lies the problem.
A final note, Mr. Stewart has NOT taken a position wth the city.
And I started the trend of hitting up FSU’s photogs for free sports photos. AND getting FAMU’s SID to send us his photos from their games for free. When the Gannett pants suits on the top floor of the Chrystal Palace saw how much money I saved them by throwing longtime employers into the unemployment line, I got a promotion!
I sure put the LEAN in McLean!
So if they can turn a blind eye (sorry about that pun, Doug) to it, so can I!
It’s good to be king!
I am sure Mr. Blackburn is a “great guy”. The issue here is not the quality of his journalism it is the fact that he was reporting on issues with regard to FAMU while be paid by FAMU. This is a conflict of interest and adds to the cynicism people feel towards traditional news outlets.
While I generally like Tallahassee Reports attempts to show the other side Tallahassee current events, this really seems a grasp at nothing.
Blackburn has been one of the best reporters in the city for years. Universities often bring in
Adjuncts to teach in fields of expertise.
I have personally met Doug many times due to his involvement in the wine and craft beer world. Anyone who thinks you could buy a world of favoritism from him have never met the man. FAMU is fortunate to have a person of his talent and integrity join its staff and a major loss for the rest of us to loose his reporting talents.
Dan, I appreciate your comment. Please understand this is not about Doug Blackburn! This is about policy at the Tallahassee Democrat. Experts tell me at the least, Doug’s relationship with FAMU should have been disclosed. Again, this not about Doug Blackburn and the quality or angle of his reporting.
David: Maybe. Yes: but mid-size city-style journalism was never going to hold up in the way the industry had arrived at it. There are not enough serious news readers in the world for a town like Tallahassee to have a newspaper of 90 reporters. Plus, technology, technology, technology. As you will note, David: I have expressed the obvious. Oh,Preston: I think so too. Journalism, at least in this country, began as partisan and sordid. Journalism, for the most part, is sensationalistic, tawdry, gossipy and lowbrow (not only The New York Post, but even your New York Times). From Anthony Trollope’s “The Way They Live Now” to Waugh’s “Scoop” to Ward Just’s “An Unfinished Season” —all have recounted the basic fact of journalism: no genuinely ethical man would pursue it. Over the last century, journalism has taken on pretension after pretension—so it’s a profession with an ethics. “Conflict of interest” is one of those ready-made terms used to impinge and on careful inspection not exactly rigorous or built up well.
Chris it does not take “careful inspection” to see the conflict of interest here.
I don’t think I misunderstand the point at all. I just don’t think this supposed conflict is all that important. This article is just a poke in the face at your putative competitor—a delightful bit of bombast and a great journalistic tradition. This hardly impeaches Blackburn. Even Gabordi.
You should not be writing about FAMU when you are being paid by FAMU. It does impeach them!
Chris, it is really a poke in the “readers” face and another reason why people are not trusting traditional sources of media. The Democrat is in decline!
Chris, if you do not see this as “all that important” then we come from different philosophical views of journalistic ethics. This cuts to the very core of the industry which is why expert after expert interviewed (and those I have personally talked to) call it a conflict of interest.
Don’t sweat it, Doug. These are not your journalistic peers.
River, Take a challenge. Look over the archives and see the huge number of stories (all fact and public record based) that have appeared on this website and inside the pages of TR, then compare how many of those stories ever appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat. I have every reason to believe that the new publisher has recognized the apparent weaknesses of the TD and local investigative reporting is among the most glaring. Repeating…this article has nothing to do with the quality or integrity of Mr. Blackburn’s reporting. He simply should not have been the reporter covering higher education or FAMU specifically. This publication has trumped every other media outlet in local investigative reporting which is why the circulation has grown so impressively.
Not shocking, unfortunately. The Democrat has become a laughing stock throughout the nation for concealing and/or not pursuing stories that the NY Times and others have.
By “payment arrangement,” you mean a contract by which he exchanged teaching services for a sum of money dictated by university guidelines, right? FAMU and FSU employ hundreds of adjuncts every year. Blackburn’s employment doesn’t appear to be any different.
You’re very clearly making an attempt to turn this situation into something that it’s not. I get that a contingent of people in this city had problems with Bob Gabordi and questioned his management. I don’t see a problem with taking someone to task for the way he runs a newspaper. But to break it down to its base components, you’re saying two things:
1. Gabordi should have recognized a conflict of interest and disallowed Blackburn from teaching as an adjunct at FAMU. That’s fair enough.
2. Blackburn was unethical, and his employment by FAMU compromised his integrity. You have no ground to stand on here – not a shred of evidence to suggest his reporting was biased in any way.
If you can demonstrate that something unscrupulous actually took place as the result of Blackburn’s legal employment at FAMU, I’d like to see it. I’m not an inflexible person. But show me. This is a really marvelous straw man argument (accusation?) so far.
John, the article provided the facts to demonstrate a conflict. Experts have told TR this is a “clear conflict.” It has nothing to do with the quality of Mr. Blackburn’s reporting. The article says nothing about the content of his stories.
I believe that the perfect storm was avoided here due to Mr. Blackburn having integrity and being able to report responsibly, but the issue here is more the disregard Gabordi had for policy that could have led to ramifications regarding liability and credibility issues. Gannett still needs to be accountable for Gabordi’s poor management and this is one of many examples of Gabordi’s mismanagement.
sounds like a paid lobbyist to me. there is an obvious conflict here.
This is a pretty shappy attempt at manufacturing a controversy. It doesn’t sound like Gannett policy was actually broken, for one thing. As for Doug Blackburn’s reporting, I remember stories on the death of Robert Champion and the subsequent suspension of the Marching 100, the hazing controversy…I know there were others. His writing always seemed very objective to me. This is really impugning the reputation of one of the better journalists the Democrat has had in the last ten years or so, for no good reason. Is the story that he didn’t actually violate a policy while he worked as an adjunct professors for a modest salary while reporting fairly even-handedly on issues at the same school? This is bush league reporting. Even if it was a conflict of interest, it’s tough to milk a cow that’s already left the barn.
You have missed the point, as has Mr. Blackburn, as has Mr. Timmons. This story has nothing to do with his “integrity”or stories covered. There is a bitter reality when in news…it is a lonely profession. You do not become “friends” with politicians your are charged with covering; you do not sit on boards that may need investigating; you do not accept paying jobs from an entity you are assigned to cover and if you do you ask to be reassigned. Mr. Blackburn should never have been assigned to cover FAMU…or higher education at all (since his wife works for Florida State). It is called a conflict of interest and that is why industry experts are calling it just that.
I really don’t think I’m missing the point. As a media personality, you know that there’s reporting the facts, then there are implications between the lines. It was implied in the article that Blackburn’s employment violated Gannett policy. That doesn’t appear to be the case based on a strict reading of the policy (and policies should be read strictly, in the interest of fairness to those who must follow them).
I understand the principles of conflict of interest, and perhaps Gabordi exhibited poor judgement. It wouldn’t be the first time he was accused of that. But there’s quite a jump from identifying a possible conflict of interest and demonstrating malfeasance. That’s my challenge to Steve, as I discussed below. As it stands, this barely rises to the level of curiosity – there’s no meat, other than Steve’s well-known beef with Gabordi (which again…I kinda get).
It seems to be that this article is using Blackburn and his employment situation as a straw man for taking shots at Bob. Bob made himself an easy enough target over the years, and I’ve never read anything in Blackburn’s writing that indicated bias. Eyes on the prize, my friends.
John, the story matters because there are some internal decision makers that are still there…at least for now. Expert after expert calls this a conflict of interest and it colors everything any newspaper publishes if it goes unchecked or reported. Consider, if Mr. Blackburn is teaching journalism and he saw nothing wrong with the arrangement, how does he deal with the ethics of journalism?
By the looks of how FAMU uses the name “adjunct” professor, they hired Blackburn on an “as needed basis” to teach classes. FAMU’s manual includes: “Employees in the OPS pay plan serve at-will and are subject to actions such as pay changes,
changes to work assignment, and terminations at the pleasure of the University President,
Provost, Vice President or President’s designee.”
Unfortunately, it could be looked upon like Blackburn “passed the test” while writing for the Democrat and landed a full time position at FAMU. If Blackburn/Tallahassee Democrat wanted to remain ethical in journalism, he should have been asked to write for another section of the paper. Instead, he remained “reporting” on the same people he was working for, who could, by the way, fire him at anytime. Like most of the City of Tallahassee’s issues, this could have been prevented if they just followed the rules that were put in place to prevent this type of scenario.
The sad thing I got from this, Blackburn is now teaching as a full time journalist instructor. Let’s hope there is another professor covering the ethics portion of journalism.
This is a bit on the thin side. The policy referenced above is vague in its first section…”dilute,” etc. The last section could have easily been satisfied internally by Blackburn and his direct supervisor. It is not unusual for journalists to serve as guest lecturers and this seems in the category of an honorarium.
LOL, more, more, the crowd cried!!!
All along I have felt that the “Democrat” had a “love – relationship” with our two largest local colleges…now it’s not hard to understand that they were paying for that love!
It is clear that Editor Bob Gabordi was in violation of a Gannett policy. Why isn’t Mr. Gabordi being held accountable by Gannett? Why would Gannett allow this? Why didn’t Gannett have mechanisms in place to safeguard against such blatant policy violations?
Gabordi made a mockery of journalism and became a PR rep and shill for the usual suspects rather than the citizens watchdog. The ramifications have hurt the community in terms of economics and public safety.
Hope: How dare you question my judgement.
I am the world’s greatest editor, regardless of what anyone says. Ethics don’t apply to me – after kissing Al Neuharth’s hiney by covering his self-serving BusCapade in ’87, I became a “Made Man” in Gannettland. ¿Capisce paisana? Now that I’ve moved on to Not-So-Big Al’s old haunting grounds, I don’t have to worry about getting scooped as much by Tallahassee Reports (or even the NY Times.)
It’s good to be king!
Now, let me get back to my layoff list – I have more longtime careers to crush, which puts more money in my pocket, and time’s a-waistin’!
I bow to the Emperor of Irony. All hail Little Napoleon!
Note: Funny how since Bob has gone my comments don’t disappear.