AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2009

A Porous Wall   

As news organizations, in their struggle to survive, blur the line between editorial and advertising, does credibility take a hit?

By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.     

The latest fissure in the wall between editorial and advertising came in April, when the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page advertisement that could easily have been confused for an actual news article. Placed prominently in the left-hand column below the fold, an ad for the police drama "Southland" carried NBC's peacock logo and was labeled "advertisement," but it was written in story form as if a reporter had accompanied the police officer who is the show's main character on a ride-along.

Many in the Times' newsroom balked, including Editor Russ Stanton. A circulated petition decried the ad as deceptive and said it made "a mockery of our integrity and our journalistic standards."

The newspaper's publisher responded that the ad netted a premium rate and was part of the effort to ensure the survival of his publication, which has cut hundreds of jobs in the last year and whose parent company, Tribune Co., has filed for bankruptcy.

Is this a sign of things to come or simply a misstep as newspapers seek to redefine themselves as economically viable?

"There's so much economic pressure, it seems everything is on the table," says Andy Schotz, chair- man of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics committee and a general assignment reporter for the Herald-Mail in Hagerstown, Maryland. But "we have to be vigilant about maintaining the integrity of the news side. A struggling economy is not a reason to loosen the standards."

There was a time when advertisements on the front page of a newspaper were anathema, when the separation between marketing and editorial was as vigorously defended as the separation between church and state. "We were all so pristine," recalls Geneva Overholser, director of the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and former editor of the Des Moines Register. The attitude, she says, was "no one from advertising should ever darken the newsroom."

Those days seem to be gone, as remote as newsrooms thick with cigarette smoke and loud with the clatter of typewriter keys. Even Overholser says, "I long ago gave up the idea of front-page ads as sin."

Front-page and section-front advertisements are more common, with even the most respected publications putting prime news real estate up for sale (see "No Longer Taboo," June/July 2007). Sponsored content, online and in print, is growing. Advertisers are crossing lines with their marketing techniques, packaging selling points as news to increase their product's credibility while possibly hurting journalists'.

While many experts agree the beleaguered news industry has to change its ways in order to survive, the question is how to do so while maintaining credibility and standards.

"Now, when newspapers are desperately trying to figure out what their future is, it's time to figure out what the principles are," Overholser says. "The rule is you don't try to deceive or fool readers. That's deeply offensive and breaks the bond with readers. That's not about the wall breaking down. That's about principles. It's about credibility."

Bob Steele, the Poynter Institute's Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values, says the idea of a solid Berlin Wall-type structure between advertising and editorial is outdated. He's long seen it as more of a picket fence: Each side has clearly delineated roles and principles, but "you can talk over the picket fence. If there's a gate, you can go back and forth," he says.

Skip Foster, former editor and now publisher of the Star in Shelby, North Carolina, says a different game is afoot when marketing and advertising decisions directly affect the number of newsroom bodies left to cover the news. While the L.A. Times ad may have stirred up a controversy, he says, at least it took a chance with something new.

"If we're not goofing up occasionally, we're probably not testing that line as we should," he says. If "we don't start trying some crazy things and [won't] be willing to fail and look stupid, I don't think we're going to make it."

He believes it's time to question those who simply want to maintain the status quo when talk comes to the dividing line between news and ads: "Did we have the line in the right place in the first place?" he asks. "How movable is that line? Is the line in a different place online and a different place in print?"

This is not the first time print organizations have made short-term news decisions that may not be in the long-term interest of the publication, he says. Some papers, his included, used to mock the old TV adage "If it bleeds, it leads." Now he finds his front page playing to the idea. "And not feeling bad about it, either. If it's what people want and we can benefit from it, there aren't many win-wins out there," he says. "Having a long-term view is a lot harder when you don't know what the long term's going to be or if the long term includes your presence as a news organization."

The Star hasn't dabbled in much front-page advertising "we're probably holding out for too high a price," Foster says but he's willing to consider it. The "right" advertisements will be clearly labeled with some design oversight so it's not messing up the page, but otherwise it's " 'you know it when you see it' type stuff," he says.

"If somebody comes to us willing to pay the premium rate to do something that doesn't fit into my initial set of standards, I'll listen," he says. "We're not going to do anything that's masquerading as news, but the rest is gray."

The bottom line is not to deceive: One newspaper publisher, who didn't want to be quoted by name, so as not to alienate his marketing department, described how one major local business not only wanted to sponsor a column related to its industry but also have one of its own writers produce it. Why not, the business argued, as another nearby newspaper is already doing the same thing? The publisher declined the column and the ad revenue.

Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at Poynter, says she constantly gets questions on this issue. "Every major metro market is debuting new products meant to generate more revenue, and there's questions about all of it," she says.

She's written about one TV station that put a fast-food company's cup in prominent places on its anchors' desks during newscasts, and she participated in a panel discussion with bloggers whose independence was marred by the many handouts they received. She recently took a call from someone who knew of a newspaper that has a nightlife column that is editorially driven in print but is an advertisement online.

"I see the business imperative to find new sources of revenue and new ways to make money. What worries me is the cost to credibility," she says. "You can't tell me that people are not confused. I believe the audience is savvy, but I also believe the more things we throw at them, the more confusing it gets. The ultimate result of all of this is in the audience's mind. It's going to become increasingly murky what is independent journalistic judgment and what is influenced by an advertiser with an ulterior motive."

More than one person interviewed for this article noted the growing number of advertisements packaged as news copy and wondered if publications should accept them. Weekend newspaper inserts have featured an advertisement for the so-called "Amish fireplace," an electric heater. The full-page ad is designed to look like a news story, complete with bold headline, subheads, photos and a byline. The word "ADVERTISEMENT" appears in small print at the center of the top of the page.

SPJ's Schotz notes that ad designers will "push as far as they can" unless pushed back. In one case, a reader called Schotz's newsroom about an ad, wondering if reporters knew whether its claims were true. "I put him in touch with our advertising department," Schotz says. "We're used to how a newspaper is put together and what is what, but many people aren't necessarily as sophisticated."

At his own newspaper in Hagerstown, Schotz dislikes the placement of so-called "sticky ads" the removable promo stickers that are now appearing on front pages. When, after a long illness, a local politician died, his name was stripped across the front but the sticky ad was stuck over the all-important verb in the headline "DIES".

"You can't have two pieces of information in the same physical spot," Schotz says. "You can't have a news headline and an ad and expect they won't interfere with each other."

Sponsored content is another vexing issue facing journalists in the 21st century. For the last two years, Citizens Bank has sponsored a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The bank's trademark green outlines the column and its logo appears prominently on the front page of the business section. The column is written by veteran business reporter Mike Armstrong.

Inquirer Editor William K. Marimow says the sponsorship brings in "a significant amount of revenue" but his only real complaint about the advertising element of it is that it takes away from the newshole.

"It's probably symbolically annoying to some of us, but in my view it has no effect on what Mike Armstrong writes or doesn't write," Marimow says. "When Citizens Bank does something great, we're going to report it, and if they do something awful, we're going to report it."

Could other columns receive sponsorship? "As long as something does not intrude with the news, it's something I'll consider," Marimow says.

Armstrong says that while it may sometimes be awkward "who else has a column that has an ad wrapped around it in this country?" the sponsorship has no effect on what he writes. He still addresses banking issues, as do other reporters in the business section. In some ways, he says, the choice of sponsor may have made the project easier on him: Citizens Bank is owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland and doesn't make much news in Philadelphia.

"If they were a bailout bank, it would be a little uncomfortable," Armstrong says, "but I would need to be writing about it."

He doesn't even notice the ad anymore. "It's like wallpaper," he says. But readers notice it, and sometimes they are confused. "I've gotten calls from readers asking for the name of the branch manager in their neighborhoods," he says. "I say, 'I don't work for the bank.' "

In some ways, allowing the bank to put its logo on the business page is simply a placement issue, similar to the way a clothing store might ask that its ad go in the features section or a law firm might want its ad near the legal notices, says Robert Niles, editor of Online Journalism Review and a blogger for Knight Digital Media Center.

"If a sponsor wants to say, 'I want my ad to appear every day on page A2,' and it runs opposite someone else's column, we've given them placement," Niles says. "It's only a baby step to say, 'This column is presented by.' It's not 'produced by.' It's not 'created by.' It's just 'sponsored by.' "

When Niles worked at the Rocky Mountain News, the online weather page was sponsored by the outdoor gear company REI. There's little doubt that REI wasn't able to control what temperatures were reported. "For the advertiser, control of the day-to-day coverage isn't as important as there being coverage of the thing that is important to them," Niles says. "They're smart enough to know that if they control the everyday coverage, the public will know and ignore it. It's no good to publish something that nobody reads."

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said as much last year in a post on blogmaverick.com. In the December missive, Cuban proposed creating a "beat writer cooperative." Funded by major sports leagues, the cooperative would employ at least two writers in each sports market. The owners would benefit with increased, in-depth coverage of their teams. The newspapers would benefit because the writers would answer only to the editors they were writing for.

In an e-mail interview with AJR, Cuban explained that control of content wasn't what mattered.

"Newspaper coverage helps build awareness and commitment to a team. Whether it's positive or negative," he wrote. "The suggestion that there is a theme of control means that you believe that there cannot be any trust or contractual agreement between media and teams. That is just not the case. It would be incredibly easy to do a document of understanding saying, 'you write what you want to write. We won't have any say in the matter. Even if we get mad at you over what you wrote, we won't interfere. On the flip side, since we are contributing financially to your survival and hoped for success, we expect that you cover the team at minimum, on a daily basis during our season, and at least x times per week in the off season.' "

Such an agreement could improve sports coverage, according to Cuban.

Reporters and columnists in today's climate are so worried about keeping their jobs that they might hold back negative coverage so as not to affect their access to their teams. A co-operative would "provide some level of stability to the business of sports reporting [and] it could actually open the door for better reporting. Regardless of whether that coverage is positive or negative," Cuban wrote.

"Either you trust your reporters to do their job and for editors and publishers to attempt to be impartial in the stories they choose, regardless of pressure from any outside source," he concluded, "or you don't."

Given all the entanglements, transparency may be the best way for news organizations to stay credible. "Anything that is sponsored by anything needs to be clearly labeled," Overholser says. "To me, transparency is the last strong ethic standing."

Readers have to know an organization's ethics policies and be reminded of them again and again and again. McBride says that if she were editor of the Inquirer, for example, she might end each Citizens Bank-sponsored column with a tagline like, "Our standards for editorial independence can be found here," with an accompanying link.

"Full disclosure is a bare minimum," McBride says. "You also need to write policy and best-practices issues for your public and let them comment upon it."

What's worrisome, she says, is the fact that not everyone will hold to the same high standards. And that, she adds, "will undermine everything that we do. Their stink will wash off on us."

Fred Brown, a former SPJ president and vice chair of the organization's ethics committee, believes one of the mistakes the L.A. Times made with its front-page ad was not discussing the placement with everyone involved and invested in the product's credibility.

"If you're going to have standards that apply to your particular media outlet, everyone should have a say in what those standards are," Brown says. "That discussion needs to happen in the newsroom. Let the marketers in on the discussion, too. The problem is, reporters don't understand the marketing side, and the marketers don't understand the reporting side. Their goal should be the same, but their methods are different."

Brown recently worked to revise SPJ's ethics handbook. Someone asked about including the L.A. Times case as an example. He didn't think that was such a good idea.

"If you're going to have a good ethics case study, there ought to be two sides to that," he says. "In this case, one side would be, 'We have to survive,' but that's not an ethics question."

Natalie Pompilio (nataliepompilio@yahoo.com), a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and New Orleans' Times-Picayune, is a Philadelphia-based writer.