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Breaking Down the Wall

Once upon a time, running a newspaper was a fairly simple proposition.

I’m not talking about those golden days before the Web destroyed newspapers’ carefully crafted business model, although in retrospect, those decades of double-digit profit margins and a near monopoly of news in local markets do seem pretty sweet.

No, I’m talking about a period that began in the U.S. in colonial times and ended in the early decades of the 19th century.  It was a time when newspapers were essentially house organs of political parties or commercial interests, when editors and publishers knew which side their bread was buttered on, and there was no need to spend a lot of time agonizing over what stories needed to be covered and how and where they would appear in the paper.

But by mid-century, that was beginning to change.  It turned out that there was more money to be made selling advertising than by accepting subsidies from commercial and political sponsors.  In 1870, only 13% of daily newspapers in the 50 biggest U.S. cities identified themselves as “independent.”  By 1900, 47% of them did.  By then, advertising revenue made up 55% of total newspaper revenue.

And so publishers and editors had to learn how to deal with a new challenge; how to keep advertisers happy while still maintaining a degree of editorial independence.

It wasn’t always easy.  As historian Michael Schudson points out in his book Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers, by the end of the 19th century, “reporting” had become a quasi-respectable profession, and the young men who entered it believed in presenting readers the facts as they saw them, accurately and honestly.  They did not want their work to be confused with advertising.

Blurring the lines

Advertisers, on the other hand, were only too happy to sow confusion.  They were not averse to blurring the lines between “news” and advertising.  The typical North American newspaper at the turn of the century would frequently feature three types of content on the page: news, advertising, and a hybrid that was essentially advertising disguised to look like news.

For a little extra money, just about any advertisement could be re-written and placed in the newspaper disguised as a news story, with nothing that would allow the reader to distinguish between material that had been paid for by the advertiser, and that which was generated by the newspapers’ own reporters.

Newspapers were often contractually obliged to engage in this kind of deception. Those dealing with the Jennings Advertising Agency, for example, were required to agree to “reprint on news or editorial pages of said newspaper, such notices set in the body type of said paper and bearing no mark to indicate advertising, as are furnished from time to time by said Jennings Agency.”

 

These kinds of arrangements were welcomed by publishers, who were only too happy to oblige a prospective advertiser, but they were loathed by most editors and reporters.  By the 1920’s, as journalism began to develop codes of ethics, asserting the separation of advertising from editorial was high on the list of priorities, and has remained so ever since.

The wall between “church and state” was not to be breached, though it was always far more porous than many journalists cared to admit.  From the start, there has been a strong whiff of mythology about the separation between the business office and the newsroom, but rhetorically at least, the idea that editorial decisions would be made independent of the wishes of advertisers has long been considered to be one of journalisms most fundamental principles.

 

“Crossing the Line”

Violate those principles, and there would be consequences, something that the Los Angeles Times discovered in 1999, back in the days when newspapers still turned a handsome profit and the storm clouds of the Web were still over the horizon.

The controversy began when the Times entered into a deal with the developers of the Staples Center, the city’s new basketball and hockey arena.  The Times agreed to publish a special edition of their Sunday magazine devoted to the opening of the new arena, and in return, the Times and the arena would split the profits generated by the ad sales.

Very few people at the paper knew about the deal, which was negotiated by the publisher and the sales office.  The reporters and editors who worked on the magazine thought it was all business as usual.  But when details of the deal became public, there was an explosion of righteous indignation.

How could readers trust the Times to report impartially on an organization with whom the paper had a business relationship, reporters and editors asked?  More than 300 of them signed a petition demanding that the publisher apologize and promise to never do it again.  She did apologize, and the newspaper published a 30,000 word mea culpa (30,000 words!) called “Crossing the Line,” written by the paper’s media critic David Shaw.

Like many in the Times newsroom, Shaw saw the Staples affair as the ugly tip of an ethical iceberg –a drive to boost profits and the company’s share price, and a move that threatened to undermine the paper’s journalistic quality, integrity and reputation. 

Outdated”

That was only thirteen years ago, but it feels like a lifetime!  In most cash-strapped newsrooms today, a deal like that would barely warrant a second glance.  In fact, there would likely be high fives all around.

In a recent article published at PBS’ MediaShift, Dena Levitz, the manager of digital strategies for the Newspaper Association of America, declared that the firewall between the news and business divisions had become “outdated.”  “It’s no longer a question of whether to break down the wall, but how,” Levitz wrote.  “Across the industry, news organizations are finding creative, appropriate – and most importantly – ethical ways to blend the business and editorial sides.”

There’s no doubt that many of the initiatives that publishers and advertisers are coming up with today are creative, but are they ethical?

Uncharted territory

In some ways, it’s a question that goes back to the early days of newspapers. The word “advertorial” has been around since the 1960’s, but as we’ve seen, the practice of dressing up advertising to look like editorial copy goes back more than a hundred years.  But what we are seeing today is, in some ways, a reversion to practices that were popular before journalistic codes of ethics got in the way.

The reason is simple.  As newspapers are getting more desperate for revenue, advertisers are getting more demanding. They are no longer satisfied to simply buy some space in the newspaper – a half page here, a full page there.  They want something different, something that will help them break through the advertising clutter.  Together they are moving into uncharted territory.

According to the website advertorial.org, “it is widely known that people give more credibility to editorial content than to paid advertisements.  After all, anyone can claim that their own product is the best. But editorial content suggests that someone else has endorsed your product or service.”

The key word here is “suggests.”  Newspapers aren’t actually endorsing an advertiser’s product or service by running advertorials, but the more they can “suggest” their endorsement, the happier advertisers are.  Which is why you will rarely see the label “advertorial” used these days.  Instead you will see meaningless phrases like “special information supplement” printed in ever smaller fonts, and the layout of the page or the section designed to look as much like the news pages of the paper as possible.

Opacity has replaced transparency, because opacity sells.

Customizing content

But the real action for advertisers and newspapers these days lies not in advertorials, but in what has become known as “custom content.” At a recent panel on the future of newspapers sponsored by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, John Stackhouse, the editor in chief of the Globe and Mail, declared that custom content is the only significant revenue growth area for his newspaper.

What is custom content?   To understand it you have to wrap your head around the idea that today, marketing is all about story-telling. Marketers insist that their brands have stories to tell, and they want to partner with people who know how to tell stories, who have credibility, and who can deliver those stories to large audiences.

And newspapers are only too happy to oblige.  They can leverage their credibility, and in some cases even their journalists, in order to meet the marketing objectives of advertisers.

At the Toronto Star, the largest newspaper by circulation in Canada, they have created the Star Content Studios that boasts “we put 120 years of storytelling excellence to work for your brand . . .We have the resources and journalistic storytelling expertise to craft the kinds of messages that bond consumers to your brand.”

The Star calls it authentic storytelling.  It’s what the paper has been doing for 120 years, but it’s been storytelling in the service of news, not brands.  This is something different.

Among other things, the Star Content Studios will help brands create content using “compelling storytelling” that could then appear in various Star media properties and “inspire consumers to action.”

Cathrin Bradbury, Executive Director of Content Development at the Star, insists that the wall between marketing and editorial is still very high at her paper, despite what one might think when looking at the Content Studios website.  Her team is not part of the newsroom, she doesn’t want people in the marketing department to talk to journalists. The goal is to still keep those two separate.

But that is not the case everywhere.  At the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s panel, Lou Clancy, the editor in chief of Postmedia, the largest newspaper chain in Canada, conceded that as an editor, he is working with the marketing department in ways that would have been anathema just a few years ago.

Earlier this year, Postmedia launched a new weekly “content initiative” for their Financial Post newspaper.  It is called FP Energy, and it is presented by Shell.

In the press release announcing the new section, the Post declared,

As one of the country’s most experience and influential voices in the energy sector, Shell Canada brings a unique viewpoint to FP Energy. Shell’s focus on innovation, efficiency and better energy management has made it a leader in the firle, and FP Energy bring this wealth of knowledge and insight to the public.                   

So much for church and state!  And the press release goes on to say…

By leveraging the reach of the Postmedia Network and its extensive presence in the print, digital and mobile spaces, FP Energy aims to become Canada’s top source for energy information, analysis and discussion.                  

To be fair, Lou Clancy and the other editors at the Canadian Journalism Foundation panel stressed that none of these custom content collaborations affect the editorial integrity of the newsroom, but sometimes, perception can be just as powerful as reality, and the perception here is that it would be hard to be a “top source for energy information, analysis and discussion” when the bills are being paid for by an energy company.

A third Canadian newspaper, the Globe and Mail, recently produced a glossy thirteen page supplement about the American presidential election that was published the day before the vote. It was paid for entirely by Nissan Canada.  The car company was looking for something special that would grab readers’ attention, and this special supplement, distributed free in six Canadian cities, was the first time the Globe had ever allowed a single advertiser to fund an editorial product in this way.  Without Nissan’s contribution, the Globe admits that it may not have been able to afford to pay for three reporters to travel around the U.S.

Nissan had no input into the editorial process, and the company’s involvement was made clear to readers.  So what’s the big deal?

Who benefits?

In a recent post in Forbes.com, PR strategist Peter Himler asked “who benefits from the slow dismantling of the ad-edit wall?”  His answer; “brand marketers and issues advocates, that’s who.”

Notice he didn’t say anything about journalists.

In his 1999 essay about the LA Times/Staples Center mess, David Shaw (who died in 2005) described a newsroom where journalists “had become so inured to intrusions by business-side considerations in the editorial process that they were desensitized and demoralized.”

He lamented the fact that the wall between editorial and advertising was being replaced by a line.

Yes, a wall has its flaws; it’s hard to see over it or talk through it, and that’s not conducive to the kind of communication and cooperation so vital to the survival of newspapers today. But a wall is also impregnable and immovable, at least in theory; a line can be breached much more easily, moved so gradually that no one knows it has actually been moved until it’s too late, and principles have been irrevocably compromised.

And as detrimental as the collapse of the wall has been to journalism, it is potentially even more damaging for readers.

Over the past several years, audiences, particularly younger ones, have grown increasingly indifferent as to where content comes from.  An article or news report that has been vetted and edited to strict journalistic standards is viewed in much the same light as a blog posting, or an offering from a favourite brand, or even a missive from a politician.

The concern about some of these custom content initiatives is that they just muddy the water even further by reducing journalism’s distinctiveness.  Everything gets swallowed up into the same big undifferentiated content swamp.

The real worry is not that advertisers will take over the editorial process.  That’s not likely to happen, certainly not in major market papers.  The concern is that readers will think that advertisers have taken over. And if that happens, it’s bad for readers, bad for journalists, and ultimately, bad for democracy.

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photo of journalist Ira BasenIra Basen began his career at CBC Radio in 1984. He was senior producer at Sunday Morning and Quirks and Quarks. He has been involved in the creation of three network programs; The Inside Track (1985), This Morning (1997), and Workology (2001), as well as several special series, including Spin Cycles, an award winning six part look at PR and the media,  News 2.0, a two part exploration of news in the age of social media, and Engineering Search: the story of the algorithm that changed the world.

Ira has written for The Globe and MailThe WalrusMaisonneuve, and the Canadian Journal of Communication.  He writes a column on media for cbc.ca, and is a contributing editor at J.Source.ca.

Ira is currently teaching at Ryerson University and the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University. He is the co-author of the Canadian edition of The Book of Lists (Knopf Canada, 2005).