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DENVER — After 13 years as columnist/reporter for the monthly Franchise Times magazine, Janet Sparks has resigned over editorial differences.
Sparks says she now looks forward to more hard-hitting reporting. She feels she is at a new beginning in expanding her horizons beyond legal and investigative franchise issues. "I now feel a sense of freedom to reach out to the many people, franchisees and franchisors, who are on the front lines fighting for their businesses, and to the true game changers who are instrumental in transforming our community," she said.
Sparks, who has been reporting for five years on Blue MauMau, speaks in this interview about her situation and the future.
BMM: Why do you say you now "feel a sense of freedom"? Weren't you able to report on important stories before?
Sparks: In simultaneously writing for two news journals for the past five years, one print and the other online, I am struck by the shifting paradigm of reporting franchise news.
Over the past few years, print magazines have fought hard to retain advertising dollars, especially in a down economy. In doing so, they sometimes feel obligated to demonstrate their responsibility to advertisers by protecting them from damaging news reports, no matter how deserving they may be. Advertising revenue then brings another obligation to publishers. In return for advertising bucks, some expect free publicity for their brands in articles. As a result, the real news gets mixed in with endorsement pieces, making it harder for readers to sort through what is news and what is propaganda.
Readers are not the only victims of this feeding frenzy between publications and advertisers. When publishers kill news, journalists and investigative reporters also suffer, as does their reputation. As they watch their articles fall by the wayside, never to be published, they wonder what impact it might have had on readers and the community. In addition to that, they are reminded of the countless hours of research and interviews put into their writing.
Unlike print journals, writing for an online journal has been a different experience. As a franchisee site, Blue MauMau dares to dig into controversial stories and expose the truth. There's no room for subtlety. In going against the grain of most franchise publications, this website opens itself up to criticism, not only from the franchisor community and its largest trade organization, the International Franchise Association, but also from other trade journals.
While Blue MauMau sells ads, the separation between advertising and reporting is vast. That of course is also the biggest drawback for an online journal in getting revenue to support its site. In an interview last year, media mogul Rupert Murdoch addressed the issue of social media saying, "The era of free news on the Internet has got to end." Is he right?
BMM: How did you get started in franchise reporting?
Sparks: In the mid-1980s I met franchise consultant Tom Murphy here in Denver. Two years later, I was thrown into the world of franchising as I began working for his company.
The first thing I noticed as I entered that world was the little stacks of Continental Franchise Review newsletters piled around the office. I was immediately intrigued by the gray eight-page no-advertising publication, with Tom Murphy's Publisher Speaks on the back page. Tom had an opinion on everything, and he wanted the community to know what it was. And they wanted it, even though it had a price tag of $199 a year. The community valued the newsletter's candor, and they showed it in letters and phone calls. Franchisors and their trade association longed for the hard-hitting news and his viewpoint in the bi-monthly CFR bulletin that Tom started in 1968.
As I became more fascinated by franchising and more involved, I approached Tom about purchasing the Continental Franchise Review. He didn't hesitate. In 1990, we finalized the deal. I began attending conventions and legal meetings, all franchisor oriented.
I was publisher until 1998, at which time John Hamburger, publisher of Restaurant Finance Monitor, approached me about buying CFR. John was getting ready to launch a new version of Franchise Times magazine, which he had purchased from Crain's Publications in Chicago. Interesting, at that time the publication was more franchisee oriented.
BMM: Speaking of news for franchise owners, I heard that somewhere along the way you made a turn from reporting on news for franchisors to reporting on issues that franchisees would be concerned about. What happened?
Sparks: I began attending International Franchise Association conventions and legal meetings, all franchisor oriented. At a legal forum in California, I remember the general counsel of a large burger chain speaking to hundreds of eager attorneys. The franchisor attorney began his presentation proudly stating (paraphrasing), "We can do anything we want to any franchisee, any time, as long as we write it in the contract." I was stunned. But as I looked around, I realized it was generally accepted by the audience.
BMM: Ouch! Amazing... Anyhow, you were talking about your publication Continental Franchise Review being bought out by Franchise Times.
Sparks: When we reached an agreement, I became associate publisher of Franchise Times. John immediately asked me to write a column for his new publication, and we launched the first edition in 1999. My early columns were greatly influenced by Tom Murphy: The franchisor must have complete control over the franchisor/franchisee relationship. But as I interviewed franchise owners for my stories, I began to realize there was something drastically wrong with that view. Many franchisors were abusing their control.
Later, as my articles became harder hitting, the publisher decided that I would become an independent contractor journalist, separate from the staff. The idea was that I would be at liberty to write as I chose on very controversial topics.
BMM: What sort of stories do you want to cover now?
Sparks: While there never seems to be a shortage of legal stories that needs to be told — court decisions, lawsuits, some that present issues seldom exposed in franchising, and others regarding high-profile people in our community, I do hope to venture out into new territory. I plan to reach out to new people, inside and outside of our community, to incorporate fresh views into tired franchise issues.
There are also topics that I feel don't get explored enough. Mediation is one of them. Many readers will take issue with that, saying mediation is the preferred method for dispute resolution programs. I feel that the franchise community resists mediation. I want to explore that more and if it's so, learn why.
I am a free-lance reporter who seeks opportunities to place my articles on sites that may be looking for hard-hitting franchise stories in their business reporting. Today, more than ever, readers are seeking in-depth reports that don't shy away from critical issues. In this new day of the Internet, readers are searching for news they can trust from reporters who have a proven track record.
I am also compiling information for potential books on franchise stories.
Janet can be reached at [email protected].