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Is ex-reporter Christine Clayburg paying TV journalists to help clients tell their good news stories?

Clayburg Creative's U Team pitch
Clayburg Creative’s U Team pitch

In October, MinnPost ran a John Reinan column headlined, “Former TV reporter Christine Clayburg tells news of corporate clients.

“As traditional media wither and new communication channels are created, corporations don’t need to find someone at a newspaper or TV station to do a story about them,” Reinan wrote. “They can tell their stories to consumers through their websites, through Facebook and Twitter, and through online videos.”

After the piece ran, an eagle-eyed reader directed me to Clayburg Creative’s website. It includes this statement about the former Fox9 meteorologist’s “U-Team” — described as an “I-Team” covering “your good news”:

“All our U-Team reporters are seasoned on-camera TV journalists with impeccable credentials interested in your GOOD NEWS. Many are still working in news now. …Maybe you just need an hour to talk to a professional about how to make a story or event news worthy. Or maybe you need the brain power for an entire world of online content with a professional well versed in life on both sides of the camera. We make it possible for you to talk straight to the experts on what makes news for as little cost as possible.

“For obvious reasons we don’t release our list, but your satisfaction is guaranteed.”

Wait; what?

Are local TV reporters getting paid to advise clients how to get stories covered … or even help produce those stories themselves? That would pretty much violate every canon of the profession.

I called Clayburg to find out if this was so. I asked if she paid people working in Minnesota newsrooms today.

There was a pause. “We can put you in touch with somebody if that is a story they have a particular passion with,” Clayburg replied.

As we talked, Clayburg steadily shrank the U-Team’s parameters. She did not use any “contracted talent” — anchors or prominent reporters — only those who worked in newsrooms on a freelance basis. “To be honest, we don’t do it very often,” she said.

Christine Clayburg
Christine Clayburg

The secretive nature of the list? So that no one could request a specific person in hopes of influencing them, Clayburg stated.

When I asked again if she currently employed anyone working in a Minnesota newsroom today, she said, “Not at this time.”

Her clients will have to decide if the “U-Team” is all it’s advertised as, but Clayburg notes that side businesses are far from unprecedented, especially these days. Clayburg Creative pre-dates her tenure at Fox9 (2006-2009), though she says she “made the choice not to be paid” for advice while she worked for the station.

Fox9 employees told me they sign a conflict-of-interest disclosure form, so management can judge entanglements. I got a fuller explanation of a similar policy from KSTP assistant news director John Mason:

“At KSTP, our contract employees (that includes reporters, anchors and many producers) agree to provide services ‘exclusive’ to us. To provide services outside would put them in violation of their agreement with the Station.

“We also have a Conflict of Interest Policy that all employees sign. While it acknowledges ‘It is difficult, if not impossible, to describe all situations that may arise,’ it lays out the Company’s policies and expectations so anyone who works here knows what it is expected.”

Added another veteran news boss who asked not to be named, “We only use freelance sort of journalists who don’t have media-related things as reporters. I would only contract with people in the news business, [not] the p.r. business.”

Mason’s conclusion: “Personally, I think the SPJ’s Code of Ethics has it right:  ‘Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.’  In other words to act independently. As a reporter, I always worked hard to maintain that ‘arm’s-length’ objectivity and I work with our staff to do the same.”

Still, Clayburg insists we should assess the TV world “as it is right now — not 10 years ago, not five years ago. … Stations are cutting back [on full-timers] more and more; someone who sells cars is doing weather on the weekends.”

The journalistic encumbrances of making a living aren’t lost on me. Early in my career, I supplemented my reporting checks with occasional gigs for company magazines such as Fed Ex’s, which culminated in a trip to Disneyland to write a “good news” story.

Would I have written about Fex Ex or Disneyland for the newspapers or magazines I reported for at the time? Never. However, these days, I’m a volunteer board member of a couple of local farmers markets;  I’ve written (unpaid) columns for the local community paper, been interviewed countless times, cranked out tons of social media stuff, though I’d never solicit news-org coverage.

As we wrapped up our conversation, Clayburg said she’d just heard from a friend in Connecticut who’d been laid off. Her station told her they couldn’t afford to pay you. “They’re just hiring younger and cheaper,” Clayburg said with a sigh.

To be sure, many mid-career pros who’ve lost jobs in the Great Full-Timer Die-Off need paying gigs where they can find them. Still: Selling cars might be OK for a meteorologist, but were I a news director, I’d make sure no reporter, photojournalist or producer was someone else’s media consultant.

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Fritz Dahmus on 12/21/2011 - 11:26 am.

    Good for Ms. Clayburg. I can see how a “media insider” would be valuable when trying to connect with the public.

    The news content on local TV and in most local print is so soft and with the always obvious slant… that it doesn’t matter if there is a “conflict of interest”. Get over yourselves already, your work is not that valuable!

  2. Submitted by Bob Collins on 12/21/2011 - 12:08 pm.

    I’ve always thought one of the great uncovered stories about journalism is the number of journalists — usually the big “talent” — that do voice-over and other paid appearance work for corporations.

  3. Submitted by Ben Garvin on 12/21/2011 - 01:20 pm.

    I can hear the media’s collective credibility cracking a little. Sorta related, Bob Garfield of ‘On the Media’ interviewed a Washington Post reporter last week on TV morning shows getting paid for product placement and promotions:

    the reporter interviewed wrote this article “Despite law against it, stealth commercials frequently masquerade as TV news”

  4. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/21/2011 - 03:48 pm.

    Well, here’s the thing–as a PR firm, Clayburg Creatives is not bound by so-called journalistic ethics. Not that ANYONE seems to be bound by them, anymore, especially on TV. If there is a conflict of interest here, it is upon those that accept a consulting paycheck. It is up to each individual journalist to make that call, not Clayburg.

    Yeah, I wish they didn’t use anyone currently employed as a journalist, even freelance. But then, TV news is completely worthless anyway–I can’t even stand to watch video shot on-site because half the time it’s bouncy, dark, and unprofessional.

    I know my journalist boyfriend will disagree with the following statement, but…the concept of believing it is wrong to hire someone with ties to the news to tell you whether something is newsworthy or how to make it newsworthy is quaint and outdated. The reality is, this stuff isn’t being sold as bonafide news. It’s a matter of using news knowledge to market to people using other venues. If you get your news from Facebook and Twitter, well…

  5. Submitted by David Hanners on 12/21/2011 - 04:51 pm.

    As someone who has been in the newspaper business 34 years — the last 17 at the Pioneer Press — I really must object in the strongest terms possible to Mr. Dahmus’ flippant and unsupported allegation that our news content “is so soft and with the always obvious slant… that it doesn’t matter if there is a ‘conflict of interest.’ Get over yourselves already, your work is not that valuable!”

    Since our circulation is up and web traffic is on the rise, apparently somebody out there finds what we do valuable. I won’t sit idly by while someone with no special insight into the news business (and no particular credentials in the field) slams the good and honest work that my colleagues and I do on a daily basis. I am tired of stuff like this.

  6. Submitted by John Reinan on 12/22/2011 - 09:42 am.

    “Who would have thought a meaningful First Amendment was dependent on the classified ads at the back of the paper?”

    Dave, that is about the most accurate and succinct summation of the state of the news business that I’ve seen.

  7. Submitted by John Edwards on 12/22/2011 - 11:56 am.

    I agree with Mr. Porter that Professor Hage (who also taught me) would be distressed by the balance that Murdoch, Norquist and the Kochs bring to the political scene. Hage, like most of the U’s faculty, was an ardent liberal. As such, I am sure he would mourn the loss of the left’s complete monopoly on the media, even if it is only a comparative sliver where news now is presented through a non-liberal prism. That is also what makes Mr. Brauer’s consternation unwarranted: what is the difference if you shill for a business or shill for a political philosophy as do the MinnPost staff or the StarTribune news room from whence many of them came? All you have to do is read Brian Lambert’s daily snide comments and story selection to realize you are on a site for arch-liberals, not journalists. There is no source of unbiased journalism today. But more importantly,there never has been.

  8. Submitted by David Brauer on 12/22/2011 - 12:08 pm.

    John Edwards — I see: no journalist with an opinion (no matter how sincere or independent) can complain about another journalist being paid by an entity to spout/craft their point of view. I think we’ll have to disagree on that one. I think this is moral relativism — a flawed, reductionist, excuse-granting equivalency – based merely on political disagreement.

  9. Submitted by Tom van der Linden on 12/22/2011 - 01:12 pm.

    Having been active in Minnesota’s community press for more than 20 years, and served on the state’s newspaper association board, I think it’s fair to say that the majority of reporters have been taught that “bias” is to be avoided, and “shilling” violates newspaper ethics. That doesn’t mean bias doesn’t sneak in. Certainly we have ever-younger news staffs, who are led by fewer experienced editors and perhaps more importantly, copy editors.
    As for as the “liberal” media canard: most outstate newspapers – highly influential in their communities – are operated by conservative people. I know first hand because I consider my friends. Yet, these newspapers are nearly always a source of unbiased news.
    Finally, the classifieds have always paid the bills at newspapers – particularly daily newspapers- and allowed publishers to pay for educated, trained, and professional reporters and editors (and, at one time, even copy editors.) Certainly the demise of the lowly newspaper classified has done more to erode serious journalism than any single cause.
    Professional journalism training is more necessary than ever. I wonder where the money will come from.

  10. Submitted by Jeff Michaels on 12/22/2011 - 02:45 pm.

    The reference to my former journalism professor does evoke memories. As a dedicated liberal,I doubt if the good professor would welcome any media attention given to such evil conservatives as Murdoch and the Koch brothers.

    In fact, the last time I saw the late professor was in September, 1968 at the now defunct Minneapolis Argus newspaper in northeast Minneapolis. He was working very hard to put together a campaign ad for Alpha Smaby. In those days of a no party affiliation legislature, she was considered one of the state’s most liberal legislators.

    To be sure, all of us who emerged from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Minnesota in the 1960s did so with an extreme liberal perspective.

    Fortunately,some of us advanced to a more sophisticated political philosophy. Those who did not wound up working at places such as the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, MPR, WCCO and MinnPost.

  11. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/27/2011 - 08:43 am.

    OK David, I’ll bite.

    You say (sarcastically) “no journalist with an opinion (no matter how sincere or independent) can complain about another journalist being paid by an entity to spout/craft their point of view.”

    Given the choice of stories presented, and the tone with which they are presented by Ms. Hawkins, I’ve suspected that Education Minnesota contributes financially to MinnPost. I’ve asked the question, but have never received a direct reply.

    So, in light of your righteous outrage, I’ll ask again; does MinnPost receive financial support from Education Minnesota either directly or through a third party shell?

  12. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/02/2012 - 04:59 pm.

    Well, David it’s been more than a week. Guess I’ll just chalk that one up as another “no comment”.

    Keep up the good work exposing those duplicitous media sources.

  13. Submitted by Terry Hayes on 01/18/2012 - 10:24 am.

    Truth has a liberal bias.

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