Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.

 Posted 6/20/03

Running ads as news, the Oakland Tribune’s
real estate section crosses a journalistic line

By Michael Stoll

Never, never, never do we let an advertiser influence our independent press!”

So declared newspaper magnate William Dean Singleton, quoted this spring in Columbia Journalism Review lecturing Muscovites on how journalism is done in America.

Yet seven of Mr. Singleton’s Bay Area newspapers routinely ignore that journalistic prohibition. Every Saturday and Sunday they publish a real-estate section that presents advertising material as news, mixing article-like ads with legitimate syndicated columnists in apparent violation of accepted standards of journalism ethics.

See how advertising becomes news at ANG

The code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists enjoins editors to “Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.” Researchers say that practice deceives those readers who mistake the ads for impartial journalism. Journalism ethicists say it alienates other readers who recognize the manipulation. For them it undermines the credibility of news in other sections of the newspaper.

Mr. Singleton’s Alameda Newspaper Group (ANG) and its flagship, the Oakland Tribune, generally label advertising sections as such. The exception is a tabloid-format section, HomeSite, which makes a pretense of reporting on Bay Area real estate. Although nowhere in the section does it say so, the front cover and an accompanying article are for sale.

News for sale

Julie Strong, an ANG advertising representative, said realtors pay $450 a day and up to have a home featured on the cover of HomeSite. The section goes to about 183,000 daily readers of the Tribune, the Hayward Daily Review, the Pleasanton Tri-Valley Herald, the San Ramon Valley Herald, the Alameda Times-Star and the Fremont Argus. Sending the ad to the San Mateo County Times’ 35,000 daily readers carries an extra charge.

Tim Hunt, special sections editor at ANG, pointed out that the tabloid HomeSite is preceded by a separate broadsheet-format HomeSite section focusing on new homes. That section is clearly labeled “ANG Newspapers Advertising Feature.”

Mr. Hunt said he couldn’t remember whether the labeling of the tabloid section was ever discussed as an ethical issue. He promised to ask his colleagues whether it made sense to label the section, but remained unconvinced that it is necessary.

“There are two goals to this,” Mr. Hunt said of HomeSite, which was introduced last year. “One is to serve readers; the other is to serve advertisers. I don’t know if it would make a huge difference if we labeled the whole section. We do use different typefaces from the news section. Whether that’s too subtle for readers is an open question.”

Norm Bell, interim executive editor of the Tribune, washed his hands of the issue:
“It’s not our section,” he said, speaking for the news departments. “It’s an advertising product.”

Not a new issue at ANG

Two reporters who represent the Newspaper Guild at ANG, disputed Mr. Hunt’s contention that mixing news and advertisements was never questioned.“I first noticed it about a year and a half ago,” said Bob Gammon a Tribune reporter who is vice chair of the ANG bargaining unit of the Newspaper Guild. He brought it up with one editor, who said it was not a problem.

Then this year ANG instituted (and later rescinded) a new ethics policy. Mr. Gammon mentioned the newly re-christened HomeSite section again as a possible ethical transgression.

“Their response was that as long as it’s a practice endorsed by management, it does not conflict with their new ethics policy,” Mr. Gammon said. Another union representative, reporter Sean Holstege, said the quasi-ad section is deceptive: “When stories by The Boston Globe and Signature Properties appear side by side, it’s easy for the reader to be misled.”

In recent editions, HomeSite has blended free-lance advice columns by local real-estate brokers and consultants with corporate-sponsored “Featurettes.” On the same pages, with few typographic distinctions, is the cover story, “Property of the Week,” which on June 7 and 8 carried a small Re/Max logo and the phone number of the broker.

News and ads are virtually indistinguishable.

Research shows readers are easy to mislead—to the benefit of advertisers

The news media often intentionally package ads to look like news because studies show that readers consider them more believable, and retain them in their memory longer, according to Glen T. Cameron, the Gregory chair in Journalism Research at the Missouri School of Journalism. His research indicates most readers ignore all but the clearest warnings that what they are looking at is commercially produced.

While advertisers benefit, Prof. Cameron said, “the bottom line is that ‘advertorials’ do borrow from the editorial credibility of the paper.”

ANG is not alone in its use of advertorial — a term invented to describe the mixing of editorial content and ads.

“I think probably 80 percent of newspapers have a section that is not identified as advertising but is,” said Kelly McBride, who teaches journalism ethics to reporters and editors at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in St. Petersburg, Fla. “It’s as old as newspapers itself. It’s a problem.

“If one reader ends up feeling duped,” she added, “the newspaper’s credibility is diminished. If a bunch of readers end up feeling duped, then the newspaper’s credibility is reduced by that amount. And it’s only a matter of time before those readers start questioning the legitimacy of the real news in the metro section, or on page one.”

Other major local papers are more scrupulous

ANG newspapers are not the first in the Bay Area to publish realty advertising as if it were authentic news. In 2000, the Contra Costa Times ran its developer-written “Saturday Homes” section without labeling it as advertising. But the paper began to identify the section as advertising after the practice was exposed.

The San Jose Mercury News is generally careful to label advertising as such. It does, however, run a “Fantasy Home” article in its Saturday real-estate section, which is formatted as news but written in a promotional style, listing the property’s broker, price and amenities. Despite text clearly designed to sell, the Mercury claims it is not an advertisement because a free-lance writer authors it and realtors don’t pay for a “Fantasy Home” listing. The San Francisco Chronicle labels all advertising copy laid out like news as advertising.

Other Singleton papers also run ads as news

Despite Mr. Singleton’s proclamation that advertising never influences news, the top-circulation paper of his MediaNews chain, the nation’s seventh-largest newspaper company, also runs advertising that looks like news.

His Denver Post carries advertising laid out like news columns in the Saturday Marketplace Home section, according to Dwight Brown, senior vice president of the Denver Newspaper Agency, which also serves the Rocky Mountain News, a Scripps Howard newspaper that has a joint operating agreement with the Post.

Writing for consumers may drive away advertisers

Mr. Brown was blunt about the purpose of that section, which is not labeled as advertising. He called the real-estate sections “dream books”: “They’re for people looking for their dream homes. It’s a fairly thin market, and they’re looking for what are the offers in that market. The content in there is not normal news. Most of the content is built around ads.

“You’re not going to see consumer-driven editorial in this section,” he added. “That’s going to drive away advertisers.”

While there is no company-wide directive from MediaNews telling ad managers at different newspapers to make their sections seem like news, Mr. Brown said, “we do compare notes.”

Mr. Singleton did not return repeated calls for comment. He did, however, ask Beverly Jackson, recently named president and publisher of the Alameda Newspaper Group, to comment. Ms. Jackson said she hasn’t had time yet to investigate the history and rationale of the section. After she assembles her yearly budget at the end of June, she will turn her attention to content.

“It’s very important for us to identify paid advertising as such,” Ms. Jackson said. “Obviously an ad with a box around it looks like an ad, but not everything is in a box, so it’s something to look at.”

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