There is a “Chinese Wall” between editorial content and advertising.
We’re told that the ethics of journalism require that the editorial content of a paper should not be influenced by the advertising. There is supposed to be a barrier between the two halves of the business. This “Chinese Wall” prevents abuses such as advertisers using their influence to kill a negative story about their industry or company or newspapers running puff pieces in exchange for paying for advertising.
In practice, this is rarely the case. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve contacted an editor about a legitimate and newsworthy story about a client and was told that the paper wasn’t interested unless we bought some ad space. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it isn’t. I recently pitched a story about a client to a small community paper. Their website listed a contact for pitching stories. That person responded:
I would recommend The [client company] run some ads with our papers, and then we will consider getting their story out there. See attached for Rates, and Distribution.
What an easy job it must be for an editor at this paper. There is no need for editorial judgement, community engagement or civic-mindedness. You can just ask the advertising manager who gets coverage in the paper. What a disservice to the readers. Granted, some clients like this idea. I’ve seen newspapers that will sell editorial space by the column inch, letting people write whatever they want and put it out there as legitimate news. Clients with deep pockets can bypass the editorial staff altogether.
But Mike, you’re saying, where’s the harm? Newspapers are supported by advertising. Without it, there will be no newspaper. If my advertising dollars pay for the paper, shouldn’t I get a say about what the paper covers?
No, you shouldn’t. And at a legitimate media outlet you wouldn’t. Just to be clear, I’ve run into this “pay-for-play” policy in every medium. I just happened to be trained in print journalism. If you pay attention, you’ll see what I mean. For example, I saw that a company was advertising heavily on the local NBC affiliate’s web site, as well as running spots on-air. The next week, a representative from the company was interviewed on the morning news about the industry. A news anchor, whom we’re expected to trust to give us the truth, used an advertiser as a source without identifying him as such.
I’m not naive, I’ve worked for community newspapers. I understand that, often as not, the people making editorial decisions are also in charge of selling ads. But the longterm effect of compromising editorial standards means a loss of credibility and decreased readership. Then your ads aren’t worth anything.
In public relations, we’re taught that editorial content is worth more than advertising because it is seen as more legitimate. The media outlet is, in effect, vouching for the veracity of the news. Therefore, a 3-inch story is worth about 2.5 times what a 3-inch ad would be. So if you can buy editorial content at advertising rates, you’re getting a bargain and the only one who suffers is the poor reader who doesn’t realize he’s been sold a bill of goods passing as news.
Now. To be fair, there are still some shining examples of virtuous media out there. I spoke recently with the co-host of a nationally syndicated radio program about an interview with a client. He said he’d consider the interview, pitched me on the idea of buying ads on the show and then made a point to mention that the interview would happen whether we bought ads or not.
Years ago, I traded correspondence with the editor of dvice.com about running a story on a client’s new gadget. At the client’s request, I made a point to ask him if buying an ad would make a difference in whether or not we get coverage. He replied no. But for every one person who says no, there are hundreds who say yes.
As a media consumer, you need to be careful about how much credence you give to outlets that blur the line between advertising and editorial content. Make it clear through letters and emails, that you don’t appreciate being misled, because until there are real-world consequences for the compromises being made in editorial meetings across the country, nothing will change.