Reader: Bosses want advertorial disguised as news

An editor at a newspaper (circulation range: 50,000 to 70,000) says management increasingly presses for advertorial copy that can be passed off as objective, editorial copy. “They won’t outright admit that’s what they’re telling me to do — but, basically, that’s what they’re telling me,” the editor says in an e-mail.

The drill works like this: One of the “higher-ups” says they need a multi-part series that’s going to tie into a special advertising promotion — for example, back-to-school shopping. They ask the editor to substitute the regular features section for an “outfit your children” package over two consecutive Fridays. “They don’t tell me exactly what to write, or who to quote,” the editor says. “But they give me specific topics and sub-topics. So, they are dictating the news so they can sell it. Simple as that.”

Are you feeling similar pressures at your shop? Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write gannettblog[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.

24 Responses to “Reader: Bosses want advertorial disguised as news”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    That’s what happen when your newsroom becomes an “information center.” This is a feature, not a bug.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I’ll give a specific example of something that contributed to me ultimately deciding to leave the Asbury Park Press.

    Gannett papers have already been rightfully criticized for their awful “Day In the Life Of” stories and special sections. Well, at the APP we eventually covered all the towns within our coverage area for DITLO. So they decided to go with a different angle – the Guide To series, which would be like DITLO stories, only the special section would be direct-mailed to anyone in that town who wasn’t an APP subscriber.

    Lucky me, for the maiden launch of GITLO (as we came to call it), of my beat towns was picked. So, for almost a month, my bureau chief and I had to attend inane early-morning meetings nto with other editors, but with circulation and advertising, to figure out what stories I should write. You see, the earliest phase of GITLO was meant to be a subscriber push, something the circulation department could use to punch through the effects of the Do Not Call law.

    The meetings were incredible. The circulation people were morons. I sat there and held my tongue as Ketan Ghandi – then the head of circulation at the APP – and his team “brainstormed” soft-feature story ideas that would convince people to subscribe to the APP. Essentially I was writing ad copy for a town I had covered seriously for years. And in these meetings it was made very clear to my editor and I: the first GITLO direct-mailer was a subscription generation vehicle, with very specific numbers attached that circulation/ads had to hit.

    It had nothing to do with good journalism or providing people with an accurate and useful look at the complex towns in which they live. It was about trying to squeeze as much ad revenue as possible by writing soft human-interest bullshit and “business” stories about whomever opted to buy ads.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    No offense to anyone, but has the modern features section (outside of maybe the NY Times) been anything other than celebrity fodder and a place for designers to play fast and loose with style? Most features section seem driving by the consumer mentality already. I’m not seeing where we haven’t already crossed those lines.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Peeeyewwww. Newspapers stink. No wonder fewer people read them. The rich have bought and disemboweled them. There is little fight left.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    The decline in newspaper circulation and the decline in overall readership can be laid at the feet of newsrooms. Had they TRULY been engaged in what was happening, if they TRULY had written interesting content, if they TRULY were plugged in to their communities, readers would have found a reason to read rather than every excuse in the world not to (“no time?” …. please)

    Newsrooms did none of those things. Readers walked away. The encroachment of advertorial content is a reaction by the organization to find SOMETHING (right or wrong…) someone might read.

    The newspaper is a product, not a holy book as determined by the washed in the newsroom. And if you as a journalist are feeling encroached upon it’s because the rest of the organization no longer trusts you know what content readers want.

    Newsrooms have wrapped themselves in the bubble wrap of “Journalism” for so long many of them are shocked that they’re now considered by so many to be out of touch.

    What journalistic integrity are you fighting for with a “back to school” section?

    It’s time to engage.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Good grief! You know, everyone can’t have their cake and eat it to on absolutely everything. It is important to stick to your morals, however, c’mon…on puff Features stuff?!?! A piece on back-to-school fashions would stand side-by-side with other journalistic masterpieces such as what Britney Spears is doing this week and new cookie recipes.

    NEWSFLASH: Maybe News and Advertising can work together to…I don’t know…sell newspapers??? Not everything is Advertising trying to sneak one past News. Otherwise, those sticking to their morals shouldn’t complain as they pack their cardboard boxes and move to the unemployment line because the company is quietly folding up. Unfortunately, these people are also forcing people like me and my co-workers there as well. The only thing we’re guilty of is working in a supporting role to them.

    I do like reading this blog and do find it very informative. It just makes those of us left — who work in the “other departments” besides News and Advertising — quite annoyed because something has to start selling advertising and newspapers. Can’t we all help out….just a little…and stop whining?

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Soon Advertising Directors will be running News Rooms.

    Look out, most of them are very experienced in sending and responding to emails. LOL

  8. Anonymous Says:

    !:40 you never brought in a dime of revenue to pay anyone’s salary. clearly. You sound like a jerk.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    In olden times — a few years ago — advertising departments employed (or paid freelancers) to generate copy for advertorial sections. That’s the ethical way to handle it. People who are being paid to report news — i.e., material that isn’t involved in trying to get the reader to buy something — should not be involved in that enterprise. It is simply unethical. It makes readers think that news stories have ulterior motives — that happens enough, unfortunately, that we shouldn’t be contributing to it by writing shopper copy.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    Readers aren’t dumb. They notice things like advertorial disguised as news. Trying to trick them diminishes credibility. Credible news organizations will survive even the most difficult of times. The others won’t.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    What do you thing all those lame Progress editions are? Ever notice the ads that run in those things? The stories are for readers. they’re for advertisers. You think that was just chance the ad and story are linked?

  12. Anonymous Says:

    ANON 11:51 says “So, for almost a month, my bureau chief and I had to attend inane early-morning meetings nto with other editors, but with circulation and advertising, to figure out what stories I should write….”

    How awful for you…having to have a meeting with anyone outside of the newsroom. Here is a flash for you–the only reason circulation has not tanked totally is due to the efforts of those “icky” circulation folks. If you think the news content has driven paper sales, think again. Circulation numbers come from things like subscription initiatives, single copy promotions, NIE,”premium” days, forced FODs and extended grace.

    Oh yeah, define early morning meetings. Guess what? Since circulation is responsible for getting your “content” on the streets every day, they show up to work before 9 a.m.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    I wrote the second comment; Don’t give me that bullshit about the myth of journalistic integrity and the whole “reporters should works with Advertising to sell newspapers.” No we shouldn’t. As has been said, readers are smarter than you think, and they don’t want advertorials that are disguised and sold as news. They notice it when you write glowing articles about businesses that advertise heavily in your paper. The more you lower yourself to those kinds of practices, the less credibility your paper has with any reader.

    Connecting to the audience correctly has nothing to do with writing what Advertising wants you to. Don’t confuse those issues.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    Stop. Read the bickering back and forth. This has been going on for years. Is it any wonder that everything is going down the tubes? Silos. Silos everywhere. Work together? By the way, corporate is just as bad.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    To 4:53: Written like a true circulation know-it-all. In their world, they think they could delivery a blank page and readers would continue to buy it.

    You and all those other bean counters have had it wrong for years!

    It’s the content, stupid!

    One reason people aren’t buying the paper is because the pages are almost blank with little or no substantive content. We are driving everyone online.

    Page count is down in the print product. Monday papers are so thin you can see through them. Reporters sit in the office putting up updates instead of covering live events.

    We’re afraid to invest in the print product anymore for fear the return on the investment won’t be as quick or as great as we want.

    Well, where the hell is the return on the online investment? We lie to advertisers by giving them page views instead of unique visitors so we can inflate our rates.

    But guess what? Advertisers aren’t buying it. Not at all.

    And why should anyone buy a paper when we give it away online? Yahoo and Google would be out of business if it weren’t for us.

    Instead, we are the ones struggling to stay alive.

    Newspaper circulation is dropping because management keeps pushing all the resources to online and using the newspaper as the garbage can for leftovers.

    Newspapers are so screwed up, they take stuff out of the print paper and force people to look for it online.

    At least one Gannett paper pushed the Powerball numbers out of the paper and put them online. No room in the print version for six numbers, they said.

    Suunday sports sections have shrunk to almost nothing. No wonder I go to ESPN online for results and to read more about local colleges of interest than I get from my local paper which has a feature on how to play third base in girls softball.

    Ooooh. be still my heart.

    We’ve given away the franchise.

    It’s so much easier just to toss everything online than to be forced to think about presentation, sidebar play, photos and all the rest that used to go into putting together a presentable and interesting paper that people would want to read.

    So, circulation, before you take all the credit for keeping the paper afloat, look at why we’re going for the life jackets in the first place.

  16. Anonymous Says:

    I think anything that requires that reporters suspend disbelief and shut down the bs meter is a waste of staff time and an overall waste of space in print and online.
    Readers aren’t stupid. I’ve noticed that nothing makes them madder than to see a lacking the facts, rah-rah puff piece in print when there’s so much real news happening everywhere every day.

  17. Anonymous Says:

    to 5:14 PM,

    It’s both. I’ve been having this argument with fellow reporters for years. People who think if we just run the news people will pay $5 a day to get just the content.

    So I ask why was the Wednesday paper, with its coupons, circulars and flyers the heaviest-selling day?

    People want both news and bargains and the newspaper has to deliver both.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    4:53, I am a former circ exec, do you really believe that NIE, “premium days”, forced FODS and extended grace are beneficial? Advertisers are catching on to this type of circ accounting, they know it is just to inflate numbers and will not pay for it. When this happens do you think any publisher will let you continue to distribute garbage circulation? People buy a paper for the content and yes the ads, not for the brilliance of circulators who think like you!

  19. Anonymous Says:

    7:06 PM
    I’m not being smart here—but what does forced FODS mean? Same for extended grace and premium days.

  20. Anonymous Says:

    FOD stands for Frequency of Delivery. Different papers offer packages other than the traditional every day, or Sunday only. A FOD, for example, might be a Friday-Saturday-Sunday package for the reader who won’t buy a whole week but might buy into Friday (entertainment), Saturday (sports) and Sunday (the big package).

    Extended grace means additional time to pay your bill. If your subscription expires, you might keep the paper coming for, say, two weeks rather than one…in hopes that you can convince the subscriber to re-up his subscription. When grace periods are short, you save money by not printing papers that aren’t paid for. Lengthening grace periods costs more, but extends readership and, one hopes, gives you a better chance of keeping the subscriber.

    I’m not sure what a premium day is, unless it’s a bonus day. A bonus day is a weekday in which the paper’s distribution is increased and delivered to folks who normally don’t get the paper that day…often the “additional” papers are sent to those are Sunday only subscribers. It gives the advertiser some bonus coverage and circ can use it as a way to urge the Sunday only subscriber to expand to full week.

  21. Anonymous Says:

    Circulators are forced to do those types of tricks to increase volume…..increased volumes mean increased ad revenue. But now the circulators have run out of tricks and guess what…the volumes are dropping. Are they dropping becuase of the great content? Then content sucks. News people are too busy trying to provide what the reader should want and ignoring what the reader wants. When circ and adv tries to tell the newsroom what the readers want the newsies get all stuffy and act above it. We must give our readers what they want.

  22. Anonymous Says:

    Right on 1:26 and 5:14. And here, people are getting more and more disgusted with the liberal slant becoming more obvious during election time. Just compounds the readers going away because they start reading a story, then get told to “go online” for more. Well they’re not so much as papers think. Another point…having “real news” on the front page as opposed to reading about dogs being allowed to go onto the beach or aunt Martha’s food stamps doesn’t go as far as they used to. Put a good wreck, minor who killed someone or got killed, tornado, hurricane, etc. and people buy it up like hot cakes.

    I always believed the papers should have used to I-net to send readers to the paper, not the other way around. What’s going to happen when people can’t afford to be on the I-net? Maybe not so much yet, but it’s happening.

  23. Anonymous Says:

    I read this whole string. Circulation folks, it’s not only you keeping the boat afloat. We all have to work together. I put out a section that had one of the highest readerships in our area. Penetration figures were 23 percent overall, 44 percent among men 18-44. I got stopped on the street repeatedly and told that section was the only reason folks picked up the paper. “I only buy it on XXXXXX because of your section.” It was content, but it was also working with advertisers as well. But we earned the respect of everyone because we didn’t just do puff pieces; we took a stand on issues that affected the community we covered — even when it pissed off the advertisers. But it takes a concerted effort — I worked a lot of unpaid overtime and I was not OT-exempt.

    Advertising folks can’t just dictate fluff stories to news folks; news folks have legitimate ideas on how to provide information that readers can find useful as well. But news folks need to be willing to, in certain cases, do that puffy business profile as well, and I can tell you the bitching about those stories was always over the top.

    The bottom line is Gannett doesn’t want to fork out the money to do anything the right way. And what’s happening now is a direct result of them trying to cheap their way out of everything. A lot more of us are going to suffer before — or even if — the bigwigs wise up. And that’s a damn shame, because the ultimate losers are going to be the readers and the public we should be serving and protecting.

  24. Anonymous Says:

    Just because the economy is rough doesn’t mean newspapers should compromise their integrity.

    Our ad dept. sells an ad to X Company, and they’ve told X Company that we will write an article about (or that mentions) the industry that X Company is in. A lot of times it’s health. So they sell an ad to a company that, say, sells a drug for irritable bowel syndrome, and every time they sell that ad, we have to write an article about IBS, whether or not there’s any news about IBS.

    How many articles about IBS do you really think readers want to read?

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