A Dark Future For Journalism – The Editorial/Ad Wall Is Down

Several weeks ago we received a presentation from a major Canadian newspaper publisher entitled “New Approach to Media Relations for PR Consultants.” In it, the presenter outlined a new process available for PR folks pitching their clients’ work. While I couldn’t attend at the time, I obtained a copy of the deck and got a thorough debrief from the people who were in the room. I’m glad I did, as what I learned horrified me.

Worried businessmanI waited for a while before writing this post, as I let the implications of what I learned sink in and decide if I was over-reacting. I found myself back where I started, though – in a state of something approaching despair about the state of the mainstream media and what it means for public relations as we know it.

The bottom line: the newspaper publisher was directly pitching us the promise of editorial coverage paired with advertising. Quoting their presentation:

“We can help your clients marry their PR message with their Advertising message to strengthen their brand.”

The Old Media Relations Process

As it stands, you can simplify the basic existing process down to three steps once an initiative is underway (yes, this is dramatically over-simplified but it covers the basics):

  1. Develop a news release or pitch
  2. Send the release over the wire/pitch it to journalists
  3. Hope for the best

The Emerging Process

The new approach to media relations, according to the publisher:

  1. Call your “friendly” contact and tell them about:
    • The product
    • The key message
    • Target audience
    • Target markets
  2. Provide publisher with:
    • Editorial themes to complement your key message
    • When you want it in market
    • Where you want it in market
  3. “Open the newspaper(s) and view the editorial content inspired by you and your client with their brand ad exclusively displayed on that page.”

Sounds like a PR person’s dream, right? It might be, if it weren’t for six words in that last bullet. Six words which undermine the entire premise of earned media:

“…with their brand ad exclusively displayed…”

That’s right – they’ll even guarantee exclusivity for your brand on a page, as your ads will make up the rest of the page.

What this means

control. Control over the message, over the content, over the target audience for coverage. What’s more, they get exclusivity on the page – jackpot.

On the flip side, it seems the church and state divide in media – the editorial/advertising divide – has completely crumbled. Buy ads in their papers, and they’ll even consider your target audience when they write what they still insist is “100% editorial.” My ethical alarm bells are sounding loud and clear here.

An end to credibility?

While only a naive person would suggest that the advertising/editorial line was ever completely steadfast, the credibility that came with independent coverage is what lent “earned media” its title and its value – you had to earn your coverage.

While the presenter insisted that this was only the case for certain sections of their publications, and that the front section was separate to this, it’s a very slippery slope when these companies are desperate for revenue.

This also raises the question of influence on other sections of the paper. Will an editor really run a positively-toned, on-message story for an advertiser against an investigative or negatively-toned piece in another section?

All of these questions further undermine the credibility of the publication. With credibility gone, where does this leave traditional earned media?

(Photo: Shutterstock)

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  • Patrice Cloutier

    As a former reporter, I’d say that this marks another milestone in the decline of print news coverage and journalism as a whole. When most news outlets are owned by large corporations, ethical considerations are viewed under a different lens.

    To me, it just highlights the growing importance of being able to take your message directly to the consummer/audience. Why go through a middleman at all?

    • That question certainly does arise. However, I don’t think anyone wins with this arrangement in the long term, with the loss of credibility it brings.

  • Wow. Ok. That is scary. I had been noticing the trend on sponsored content more and more, but when they create a policy and process behind it, then its definitely mainstream and publishers believe it to be standard practice and accepted.

    This begs the question of value. Where do I go to get value content in mainstream media and how does one define value? Is the content credible? Does the sponsored coverage offer anything to the reader that is worth reading? Because I’m willing to make a bet that if it doesn’t, the publishing world is marching even further into decline.

    • I find it even more alarming when that sponsored content isn’t displayed as such – it’s put forward as editorial. Unless you were looking for the signs (e.g. ads positioned to match the editorial) it might be hard to spot.

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  • This has been standard procedure in many small-town papers, but mainstream? Scary stuff indeed.

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  • Wow. The only things journalism has going for itself these days are its credibility and its pretty grammar.

    You chuck that credibility out the window with blatant advertorial and zero division between the message and the selling, well, good luck to the future.

    What’s going to happen is pretty simple — journalism’s credibility is gone. Bloggers, who’ve been creeping up as the press goes, “HAHAHA, BLOGGERS WILL NEVER GET TAKEN SERIOUSLY,” are suddenly given the opportunity to, well, get taken seriously.

    Because bloggers, at least, have been forced into full disclosure.

    Also, bloggers have only themselves to buffer when it comes to decisions about what “crosses” ethical bounds. Unfortunately, a “lowest common denominator” exists in all things, so, sure, there’ll be asshat bloggers.

    But then there’ll the bloggers who set the standard for ethics.

    Everything is changing, and everything will continue to change. I imagine we’re in for another decade of dramatic upheaval, at the end of which no industry will remain the same — not movies, book, films, news, nothing. EVERY model we’ve had for “how it’s done” will be thrown out the window by 2020.

    Which is good, because it’s all bullshit now. I’m tired of journalists pretending they weren’t bought and sold years ago — conglomerates and heady business mixes made that all pretty dubious by the ’80s.

    Now there’s just no illusions anymore.

    Good. So, let’s get real and see where it leads. Anywhere’s better than here.

    • That’s a great point about bloggers. In the US the FCC has clamped down on blogger disclosure; how long until we see a move against this kind of shift in the mainstream media?

    • Mike Edgell

      In reply to this response to Dave’s post:

      “Because bloggers, at least, have been forced into full disclosure.”

      Yes, there are serious ethical fault lines in mainstream journalism, but let’s not get crazy.

      Good and bad apples in both, but seriously, how many bloggers actually call sources or attend news events in person? (as opposed to reacting to something they read on the internet).

      Good debate though. And Dave’s right, he is talking about content that is not labelled as sponsored.

  • This sounds very similar to what many magazines have been doing for a long time. Having “sponsored” inserts/pages which blend into the regular magazine content almost seamlessly. In many cases, the layout is identical, with only the “Sponsored Content” moniker at the top differentiating it.

    I can’t imagine opening the Globe and Mail or any other newspaper and seeing such a thing. There are a lot of details here that remain unknown. I’m guessing the articles will be written by a staff writer, as opposed to the agency/client providing the content word-for-word. That’s what’s most frightening.

    I’m also assuming that this is no longer “earned” media, at all, but rather such content will fetch typical advertising rates. I wonder what it means for earned media. Will it become even harder to pitch a story? Will the journalist simply ask you to pay for it instead?

    • I’ll be honest – I’ve wondered the same thing – whether it’s going to get harder and harder to earn coverage without paying for it.

      From what I can tell, the word “sponsored” doesn’t appear anywhere on the page under this system.

      • If they’re not transparent about it, it will really damage their credibility & objectivity in the eyes of their readers. Once people find out that people are paying for “news”, I’m sure there will be an uproar.

        • What readers…?

          Newspapers are hanging by a thread right now. You think they care if the masses make a stink out of this? Why would they? They’re a dying breed. The majority of the people who still read the paper won’t be with us in a few years. And until Newspapers come up with a new revenue model – their future is unpromising.

          I think its fair to say that this is their last supper.

  • And what does this mean for the PR guy or gal unwilling to participate in something he or she feels is unethical? You win someone’s business and then you’re asked to pay for your coverage. Not only does the company stand on shaky ground, the representing firm does as well.

    Scary stuff, indeed.

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  • I’m disappointed you didn’t publish this on the 1st, as I would have been able to laugh it off. This sort of reminds me of the recent Shell / Canwest “information feature” that didn’t impress the Sierra Club too much: http://www.sierraclub.ca/en/ben-liadsky/blog/shell-canwest-bring-you-information-feature. This is not a good thing. Thanks to you for bringing it to light.

    • I wonder what the public response would be if we started to see stories about government written in this way. My sense is there would be an outcry.

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  • If you have ever been in or near the trade magazine business – this is not news. This is what they do.

    If you have ever been in a Board meeting at a newspaper – this is not new. This is how they plan.

    If you have ever been at a radio station – this is how they make their living. radio has NO editorial! Unless they are reading a newspaper – which is how they get their news.

    All media was invented to sell ads. That is why they are there. The Net has not caused a failure of journalism the failure is the failure of advertising. Advertising has not gotten better over the years. It has not kept in step with our overall societal make up – we are more sophisticated. Advertising is not. If we had great ads and great companies out there selling us great stuff the newspapers, TV, radio and mags would be all a twitter and falling over themselves making money.

    Red herring. Sorry.

    • That’s a bit of an over-statement, given that I’ve been involved in pitching editorial content for quite a while now.

      Regardless, even if it may not be news to people on the other side of the line, it certainly was to the seasoned PR people I know… and it’s certainly not how these media have positioned themselves in the past.

      • Exactly how the media wanted to position itself. They are not going to come out and say ‘Hey buy an ad get an editorial.’

        They want to be viewed as unbiased and journalistically pure. My question is – then why has investigative journalism vanished? The news is bought from AP and the like.

        News is now entertainment. In the States with the removal of the Fair Trade Doctrine – like 5 companies control almost all the TV and radio and newspapers. Thanks Mr Regan! Free and independent media is gone. What did you think they would do?

        Folks are not doing this in media to be duplicitous BTW. I am not making them out to be evil – it is the nature of the beast. It is, and always has been, their business model. Think about this. Look at every newspaper we have. Have a look at Special Sections. How do you think they come up with those ideas? Editorial value? Nope. It is based on ad revenue.

        • Yep, and I don’t view them as evil with this latest play either – I guess it’s an unfortunate result of the state of the industry. Still, despite the benefits for both sides, I’m not sure I can stomach sponsored content positioned as editorial.

          • Don’t work in trade mags then! I have owned several – trust me on this. And worked at Standard Broadcasting – trust me. And run agencies…

            No one is evil.

            Hey just a suggestion – the twitter comments are distracting in this comment section. My humble suggestion is to lose em.

            As I said – great post BTW!

        • Thanks for your perspective on this – voices from the MSM side are very much needed in this discussion.

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  • I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think there is, or has ever been, objectivity in reporting. Each reporter has his or her own axe to grind and, especially on a slow news day, editors at large national newspapers will publish almost anything to fill the pages (i.e., to fill the holes between the advertisements). No one is “earning” coverage there.

    The publications that don’t strike a balance between the editorial and the advertising, whether they’re separated or not, are bound to fail. No one will take them seriously and another publication will do it better and with more profits.

    There is also a huge responsibility on editors to keep their own ethics in check when dealing with advertisers — that is the future work of management-level journalists. It’s no longer good enough just to “curate” the information.

    As the editor of a niche publication which publishes sponsored and independent editorial, I know that I would NEVER publish sponsored editorial content that wasn’t right for my audience no matter how large the potential revenue, nor would I attempt to mislead my audience to cushion the company’s bottom line. I sometimes butt heads with the salespeople who sell our sponsored editorial content, but that means we just have to sit down and work out what’s best for our clients AND our audience. I pick my battles wisely so my colleagues know that when I speak up about an ethical issue it’s REALLY important.

    It’s definitely going to be a bumpy road, but I don’t think this spells the end of so-called objective or investigative reporting. The system has been broken for a long time and there are plenty of opportunities to develop new ways of doing things. This is just the first incarnation.

    • Thanks for your comment, Cassandra – I’m really glad to hear the perspective from people working on the other side of this debate. You make a couple of really good points – that everyone has a point of view, that the focus on the audience is absolutely key and that there needs to be an element of self-policing if this is to avoid becoming a bigger issue.

      I have much less of a problem with content that’s flagged as “sponsored” – it’s not ideal, and speaks to the unfortunate state of the industry that this is necessary, but it’s transparent so is much less concerning for me. Still, I worry when this kind of content is positioned as editorial rather than advertorial. The line then blurs somewhat.

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  • Wow. That’s a line we don’t want crossed.

    So, which newspaper was it? Is there some reason you’re not allowed to tell us?

    • Hi David,

      Two reasons for not naming the outlet publicly:

      1. Although I slip up occasionally (I’m human after all), I’m slowly learning not to point the finger at companies.
      2. A more selfish reason: I still have to work with journalists from that paper.

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  • Yet another desperate act by print media to hang onto the life jacket. Little wonder than consumers are turning to other consumers when researching potential purchases.

    Mind you, I have to disagree with Mose. Out here in Asia, they’ve been saying, “Buy an ad and get a page of editorial” for years. They do it in the UK too.

  • I agree completely. I think if this becomes common practice, it would eventually cheapen the value of earned media. I would worry that readers would find out about it (which we know they will) and begin to question legitimate reviews or mentions, because really, it may not be so easy to distinguish between that and these “editorials”.

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  • Good point. People will still need a credible place to discuss, a source they can trust. If a landscape like the one you point out occurs (e.g. page with editorial content + ads), probably customers will shift away to other places, where they can have discussions they can trust. The system will self-reorganize itself to that extent, don’t you think?

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  • We have to accept that the media has to make money to exist – whether that is from advertising, cover price, sponsorship or other means (something a lot of PR practitioners don’t seem to appreciate).

    If PR practitioners really want good quality, investigative journalism that has to be funded – and return on the investment of the publishers. But, I wonder if that’s what most of the practitioners who are “shocked” by this publication’s overt commercial attitude want.

    Most seem to believe that their “news” should be reported (without interference from those pesky journalists) free of charge as endorsed editorial. Hell, it is pitched and written that way so that the media can basically cut and paste the release. Nice easy cutting, happy client – job done!

    But as Ivy Ledbetter Lee noted over a century ago – that’s about getting adverts printed free of charge and such releases (or pitches) should be redirected to the advertising department by journalists.

    Unless we stop selling (isn’t that what pitching actually means) marketing messages to the media pretending this is “news”, whilst also telling clients to cut back on advertising, because PR is more cost effective, we can’t be surprised that the media retaliates by charging for “editorial” puff.

    Public relations has to be about more than “free editorial” (calculated in advertising value equivalent measures) if it isn’t to be seen as an attempt at “free advertising”. And why should publications give companies free advertising?

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  • I think it’s been a pretty common practice for publications to ask for the purchase of editorial coverage, but maybe not in such a blatantly open manner. The usual scenario is – sure, we’ll give you some coverage, then we’ll sell you an ad, and our “relationship” begins. Tit for tat, as they say. As someone who launched and had to promote a bare bones start-up consumer product company with no budget at all for adverstising, I was out there trying to get as much editorial coverage as I could. I did get pretty good coverage, but when I consistently had to reject pitches to buy advertising because we simply didn’t have the money, the coverage seemed to be harder and harder to get. I’m not sure there is such a thing as unbiased news. I’m not sure there ever was. We are humans not machines after all. I’m not saying that I think this is a great approach to getting editorial coverage, but I don’t think this is earth shattering news. I just don’t think anyone has come out and said it so openly. It’s usually just a wink, wink kind of thing and everyone knows what’s expected.