New Advertorials Raise Old Ethical Questions

By: Joe Strupp

Should newspaper ethicists worry that two TV stations passing off paid segments as regular programming will inspire publishers to give that notion a try in print? Or do these watchdogs already have more than enough to monitor in the burgeoning field of newspaper advertorials and the growth of “custom publishing”?

Recent episodes at WFLA-TV in Tampa, Fla. and WLBT-TV in Jackson, Miss., have sparked some concern that if television news organizations are beginning to break standard ethical rules, newspapers may be more open to similar missteps. “Once the barn door is open, people can get together and rationalize how it can be done for anything — even newspapers,” said Gordon D. “Mac” McKerral, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, which issued a statement last week slamming the two TV affiliates. “Is it that desperate a situation for revenue out there?”

At WFLA, producers were criticized for charging some guests up to $2,500 to appear on the station’s “Daytime” morning show. WLBT came under fire for running what it called “paid-for informational segments” during its “Midday Mississippi” show. Both stations drew national attention earlier this month when Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission asking it to examine the practice. “If it was accepted, what the TV stations are doing, it is only a matter of time before someone in print says it is acceptable,” said Gary Hill, SPJ ethics committee chairman and head of the investigative news unit for KSTP-TV in Minneapolis. He added that no news organization “is immune from this.”

“You could make an argument that we have already crossed that (ethical) line with advertorials,” said Peter Bhatia, editor of The Oregonian in Portland and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. For newspapers, advertorials have always been a slippery slope. Most have become acceptable as long as they are clearly marked as advertisements. Still, some papers have been criticized for running the disclaimers in small type or in less-noticeable areas.

A newer version of the advertorial, known as “custom publishing,” is gaining popularity at many Gannett Co. Inc. newspapers. At The Des Moines Register, some of the special sections — which focus on areas such as home furnishings, health, and kitchens and baths — are produced by the non-editorial custom publishing division. According to Publisher Mary Stier, the sections sell advertising to local businesses and create stories by their own staff writers, often primarily using advertisers as prime sources, with some stories running next to the source’s ad.

A number of the Register‘s special sections, however, have had nothing that explicitly identified them as an advertising product. A line at the top of the front page simply reads: “A Des Moines Register Custom Publication.” Although the sections’ typeface is different from the main newspaper, the layouts are eye-catching and featurey enough to possibly mislead some readers, minus the “paid advertising” tag.

“Newspapers are moving from a mass medium to offer targeted content to a targeted audience,” Stier said. “It is like a traditional special section… It is not our attempt to confuse the consumer.”

Custom publishing, which includes advertorials within the newspapers as well as entirely separate publications, has grown among Gannett newspapers. It began at the chain’s Reno Gazette Journal about four years ago, according to Karen Crotchfelt, who says she coined the name. She now serves as director of business development for The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, also a Gannett paper using the custom publications model. Many Gannett newspapers have launched similar publishing efforts in an attempt to expand revenue options, but Crotchfelt pointed out that most of the papers clearly differentiate the non-editorial products from the news publications. “We go out of our way to make sure things are labeled,” she said. Custom publishing sections from the Reno paper and the Republic examined by E&P were both labeled as “advertising sections” on the front page.

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