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Oakland Tribune pledges end to deceptive 'advertorials'

 

Tribune "advertorial" section, April 1, 2004.

After years of running advertising presented as news -- even as recently as this month -- the Alameda Newspaper Group will end the practice, the chain's new editor said.

Kevin Keane, who for a month has overseen the Oakland Tribune and four smaller suburban papers, called the publication of paid articles not clearly labeled as advertising “a potential conflict of interest.”

"I think there’s got to be a clear delineation between advertising and editorial," he said. "We're not trying to fool the reader into thinking it's editorial when it's not."

Mr. Keane's comments came just days after the Tribune and other ANG newspapers distributed an eight-page pullout news-like section devoted to -- and paid for by -- the Oakland A's baseball team. The section was not labeled as advertising but contained articles by publicity writers for the team, as well as photographs by ANG staff.

Mr. Keane said he was not responsible for the production of the section and that under his direction the newspaper group would operate differently. "I intend to work closely with the people responsible to change the way we do things," he said.

The previous ANG management, when called on its failure to warn that its HomeSite tabloid real estate section was advertising when it was largely written by advertisers, began to label the section as a "special advertising feature." But it did so in white ink, which was often illegible against the white background of the cover photo. Even when so labeled, the section mixed legitimate news columns with advertising material laid out as news, without cues to readers as to which was which. Asked last October by Grade the News whether he was troubled by the mix of news and ads within HomeSite, ANG Newspapers' then-managing editor Norman Bell said, "I don't see that there's any problem with that."

Fight for credibility

Journalism ethicists for years have proscribed such blends because readers are not warned of the switch from neutral reporting to commercial persuasion. The Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics urges reporters and editors to "distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two."

The president of the society's local chapter, Beverly Kees, was thrilled to discover ANG was taking a principled stand.

"Unfortunately journalism's credibility ranks lower than spider spit -- not always fairly -- and the 'anything for a buck' scandals in the business world have increased readers' cynicism," Ms. Kees said. "A public commitment to ethical behavior by a news organization's leaders not only makes journalists feel better but helps restore confidence among the citizens we're trying to serve." (Ms. Kees serves on the Grade the News advisory board.)

Mr. Keane’s arrival March 1 follows the January appointment of a new publisher, Ian Lamont. Mr. Lamont echoed Mr. Keane's philosophy on separating news and advertising: "We're invited into homes because of our reputation for promoting objective news, and to slip something in that's not -- that's unethical."

The new leadership has been well received by the staff, which says management appears interested in negotiating with the Newspaper Guild for higher salaries, better training and other operational improvements. The average salary for editorial staff throughout the chain is $35,000 -- tens of thousands of dollars lower than what writers and editors make at competing papers, said Tribune reporter Sean Holstege, president of the ANG chapter of the Guild.

The Guild, too, has been concerned about the mixing of advertising and news, and not only because it leads readers to distrust the paper. "That’s eight pages of content and the author didn’t get any compensation," Mr. Holstege said."In blurring that line and

Inside: advertising that looks like news.

filling the paper with material that people probably want but don't realize is bought, that justifies scaling back the sports staff."

Team marketing or news?

The latest example of advertising presented as news came on April Fool's Day. But the A's-produced section, labeled enigmatically "Special," was no joke.

It was headlined with the A's logo and the slogan "A Different Brand of Baseball™." It contained a dozen articles on company promotions and the upcoming baseball season, including three pieces written by Casey Tefertiller, a free-lance writer from San Bruno, who has previously written articles for the A's program handed out with tickets at Network Associates Field. Reached at home, Tefertiller said he was surprised to hear his writing had ever appeared in the Tribune.

The section hawked the team's merchandise in news story form. Under one headline, "A's Brand merchandise rolls out in 2004," the lead sentence read: "The Oakland A's have been gearing up for the coming season by bringing in an exciting new assortment of apparel, caps and novelties."

Other Bay Area newspapers run "advertorial" sections, but usually in a less confusing way. Three years ago the Contra Costa Times began to label its "Saturday Homes" section as advertising. The San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News both have advertiser-supplied news columns that are clearly labeled as ads. The Mercury News goes a step further, identifying each article by the company that wrote it. The San Jose paper, however, has promoted an expensive "fantasy home" for sale in the area in a weekly real estate section without labeling it as an ad. Because the paper pays a freelancer for the promotion, it does not consider the feature to be advertising.

The television equivalent of advertorial, "video news releases" paid for and distributed to stations by companies as free footage, while common in other markets, is rare in the Bay Area.

At ANG, the Guild has repeatedly objected to the use of stealth advertising, produced by the marketing department but made to look like news. Mr. Holstege said he was encouraged by the new management team's promise that a "new day" has arrived at the papers. "There are no concrete plans," he said. "They appear interested in our advice and our views. That in itself is a new day. They didn’t previously care what we thought. I am genuinely optimistic."

Gerald Grilly, executive vice president and chief operating officer for MediaNews Group, ANG's corporate parent run by media mogul William Dean Singleton, expressed surprise that unclear "advertorial" had ever made it into print in the East Bay. The papers he oversees, including the seven Bay Area papers and eight dailies in Southern California, don't do that, Mr. Grilly claimed.

"That is our policy," he said, "and if it happened here, the ball was dropped."

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