‘WSJ’ Hits ‘Special’ Coverage, But the Charges Prove False

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By: Joe Strupp

At times, the new frenzy over ethical matters in newspaper advertising can create a controversy that isn’t real. The Detroit Free Press on Nov. 1 published a 10-page special section on Medicare enrollment that included an ad from health insurance company Humana, Inc. The next day, The Wall Street Journal wrote a story that claimed Humana had given the paper the idea for the coverage. Free Press Editor and Publisher Paul Anger says he explained to the Journal reporter that was not the case ? but the Journal reported it anyway.

“We were writing about Medicare open enrollment, and in talks with Humana, our ad folks learned of their interest in being part of that,” Anger recalls. “We packaged our coverage of Medicare re-enrollment into a section that ended up being good for us, good for readers and good for advertisers. Nobody compromised themselves.” The Journal eventually ran a correction admitting it had “incorrectly suggested that the idea for the specific articles came from Humana.”

Anger says the state of the industry has forced newspapers that are under pressure to raise revenue to look at advertising ideas they might not otherwise consider: “The bigger issue on this is that the reason you see these different ad sizes and non-traditional approaches is that the traditional advertising placements in our industry aren’t working for the advertiser as well as they used to. Advertisers are looking at reaching certain kinds of customers and they need to maximize the eyeballs they are getting.”

Anger says the Free Press has a new review process in place that allows production, advertising and news executives to review proposals that are out of the ordinary or, in a worst-case scenario, that might make readers question the paper’s integrity.

“Some get modified, some get rejected,” he says. “But you see more of them coming up because advertisers need to get their message out.” The Free Press is also among those using in-text online ads.

One approach that Anger rejected was a strip ad that would have run vertically down the entire length of a section front page. Anger says it didn’t fit the page’s news presentation. “At some point, you get into a situation where you cannot present the news properly,” he explains.

The publisher adds that he has so far rejected sponsorships like those at The Philadelphia Inquirer: “It gets into what the advertiser might expect, and how it looks to readers.”

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