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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Presenting sponsorships in online verticals highlight need for more transparency

Online news sources see opportunity in developing subscription-based verticals, or separate sites that focus on specific areas such as energy, healthcare or e-commerce.  Theses sites can rationalize pay wall protection because they require specialized reporting resources but have a limited audience appeal.  Politico Pro offers 14 verticals, the newest being one addressing labor and employment.

Writing for the Huffington Post, Michael Calerdone notes that Politico sees opportunity in this area as major newspapers and other traditional news outlets scale back resources covering labor.  According to an interview with Marty Kady, editor of Politico Pro, the site’s marketing research shows that there remains a real interest in the details of labor policy among stakeholders in areas including lobbying, government and Fortune 500 companies.

Subscriptions for Pro verticals cost in the thousands of dollars, and the latest offering is one that may appeal to unions, law firms and companies wanting the latest workplace policy news. And Pro coverage, like that appearing on the main Politico site, is expected to be nonpartisan.

But in staffing the labor and employment vertical, Politico has turned to experienced journalists known for expressing points of view with their reporting. Timothy Noah, a liberal writer who spent years at The New Republic, Slate and MSNBC, will edit the four-person staff, which also includes Mike Elk, a labor reporter who recently worked for the left-leaning magazine, In These Times.

It seems quite reasonable to include reporters known for offering individual points of view, especially when reporting on policy decisions that are subject to debate, partisan or otherwise.  Some may see the risk of inherent bias in this kind of staffing; others recognize that with solid editorial over site, stories can be presented responsibly.

It may not be as easy to maintain an air of objectivity when a vertical supported with hefty subscription fees also come with presenting sponsors.

Writing for In These Times, Arun Gupta point out that one of the very first sponsor of Political Pro’s labor and employment seems to be more than just your average advertiser.

However, the Politico labor vertical made a curious decision in its first week. Its newsletter, “Morning Shift,” debuted October 7 with the tagline, “Your daily speed read on labor and employment policy” and a sponsorship from the International Franchise Association—a trade group representing franchised businesses like McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza, as well as their franchise owners . Two days later, Morning Shift covered a labor issue of enormous importance to the IFA— whether McDonald’s has a legal responsibility for working conditions in franchises—but never mentioned the sponsor’s stake in the story, and editorialized in a way that could give the appearance of favoring the IFA’s position.

Gupta wonders how a news platform that presents itself as non-partisan (according to Calderone’s HuffPo piece) squares with the presentation of a labor report by a trade association that represents a sector “where unions and workplace rights are virtually nonexistent and wage theft and poverty is rampant.” (Gupta provides links to support those charges.)

Still, a sponsor with a vested interest in how information is reported can create serious conflicts of interest. Politico could be more transparent about the possibility of such a conflict if it noted IFA’s involvement in the McDonald’s story—which it never does. Further, at times, the Morning Shift appears to slant its reporting toward IFA in the October 9 Morning Shift report.

Sponsorships as well as advertising are key to the financial success of news sites.  Reporting resources take money, often much more than subscriptions can deliver, especially at start-up.  It would certainly go a long way in establishing and maintaining credibility of news sites acknowledged the sponsor-as-subject connection in a transparent and responsible manner, especially when specific stories seem to favor a presenting sponsor.

Read Calderone’s article here.

Read Gupta’s article here.

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