McGuire on Media

Let's count to 100 and then decide we hate ads in news copy

I understand that times have changed in the newspaper industry.

I get it that between the Internet assault on classified, the downturn in autos and housing sales, the decline of department stores and the rise of big boxes, the economic troubles on Main Street and declining circulation, that advertising revenue is falling through the floor. I understand that top-line revenue is declining and so are bottom-line profits. I get all that.

I understand that the digital capabilities are creating challenges I never  imagined.  I even understand that amid all these realities, editing a newspaper is harder than it has ever been. I appreciate the state of siege editors feel is far greater  than I experienced in my 29 years of leading newsrooms. I get that. I even understand the sentiments from editors that “if I can get another reporter or two from the publisher I will give in to things I would have laughed out of the room 10 years ago.” Got it. 

I know some damn fine editors are going along with things they “abhor” because they’ve decided the breaking of boundaries is “not so bad that it’s worth leaving my job to some Visigoth who will really destroy news. ” I hate that one, but I even get that.

All of that tough, bitter-tasting reality is hard to handle, but it does partially explain why matching key words in news copy to advertising and providing links are finally getting a foothold on some newspaper Web sites.

Let’s step back a minute. Last Tuesday, as my students handed in their ethics journals, one young woman asked me about some “little green lines” she saw in a story on AzCentral.  She said the green lines linked her to advertising.  I was failing miserably to effectively manage the onslaught of questions, comments and papers. I looked at her quizzically, and said a bit dismissively, “I am not sure what you were seeing, but I don’t think it was advertising.”

I am getting older and more forgetful. That encounter flew right out of my head until Friday morning when my ASU colleague, Assistant Dean Kristin Gilger said, “What do you know about the Republic’s Web site linking words to advertisers?” My first reaction was “nothing.” And then I immediately said, “Uh-oh my student was right! Who knew?”

That conversation launched Cronkite School Dean Chris Callahan and me into action. Callahan dinged around on the Internet a bit and figured out that Vibrant Media was providing this service and gave me a few more web tips. I spent a few hours looking at stories and following the ads. The result was a blog item late Friday that actually broke some news. By the end of the day thanks to the candor and availability of Michael Coleman, vice-president of Digital Media At AzCentral, I had pieced together the story of the Republic’s foray into selling advertising by matching key words in stories in all sections except the main news and local sections.

I was well aware I had not seen any other reportage on the issue. I made a conscious decision to eliminate most of the attitude and opinion that usually marks the comments on this blog.  I tried to treat the piece as a news story. I reserved the commentary for now. 

I have now counted to 100. I wanted to get past all the knee-jerk rhetoric that usually marks news people reacting to business encroachments on news. I have tried to appreciate all the gut-wrenching issues facing editors that I recounted above.  I wanted to be forward-thinking and not backward-thinking.  My burning desire, along with everyone else who loves newspapers and newsgatherers, is to protect that enterprise far into the future.

Okay, I did all of that and finally reached this conclusion: Selling key words in news stories of any type is a terrible mistake. The decision travels a road that descends into advertiser chaos. It will weaken and cheapen newspapers’ effort to serve advertisers, and it will break any bonds of trust between newspaper and reader that might still exist.

For several years I have argued that editors, publishers, reporters, ad directors and advertisers have simply waltzed by the fact that selling advertising into our news pages damages credibility, especially with the young. My time here at the Cronkite school has convinced me that no matter how much sense that makes to us, many young people have difficulty figuring out our distinctions. I am not arguing we abandon selling advertising in newspapers or on web sites, but I do believe it is worth contemplating how that accepted behavior opens the door for skepticism.

These next statements are sure to shock publishers and CEO’s. Editors who have insisted on a separation between advertising and news for the last 50 years were not being prima donnas.  They have not been sent from hell to be a scourge on publishers and ad directors. Honest! They have been fighting to insure that readers could have complete confidence that the news gathering process is completely separate from the sale of advertising.  Any one who has ever spent 10 minutes at a newspaper knows that advertisers have always WANTED to affect news.  Editors have known that if we do anything to allow readers to believe something readers want to believe anyway credibility gets washed away in a heartbeat.  My memory is failing me, but I am quite sure one piece of research from several years ago told us that readers already believe advertisers influence news coverage.

So in that environment some folks decided we want to underline three or four words per story and when the cursor floats over the words “tennis” or “athletic” a deodorant ad will pop up.  That stinks! At that moment, a reader  has to wonder whether they are reading real news or a conduit for advertising. It will not require conspiracy theorists to wonder if those words were necessary to the story or if they were inserted to maximize advertising opportunities. 

We all understand that one of the great benefits of online journalism is the power to link to other content on the web. Can we really expect to successfully distinguish links to advertising from links to other legitimate stories?  No chance in Hades! Take a look at how this process really works and you see that a man’s title, athletic director, gets interrupted by an ad for a deodorant.  As we are searching for ways to engage readers, I assure you interrupting the reading experience is not going to attract more readers.

Back in the old days, at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, our core mission was to become a “trusted source of information.” I still believe there can be no higher calling. Trusted sources of information do not confuse readers about what is news and what is advertising. Trusted sources of information do not lure readers into a sports story and then drop a deodorant ad on them. Trusted sources of information are, as my colleague Andrew Leckey said in a comment to my earlier blog, “watchdogs” on business. Such trusted sources should not become lapdogs.

Hysterical reaction from “newsies” is not the way to deal with this issue.  What’s required is an open, honest debate about where journalism’s fits in the digital age. Without question, there are going to be questionable purveyors of  electronic “stuff” who are going to take every digital advantage to besiege readers with advertising messages. The question that needs frank discussion is this: can newspapers develop and grow their business as trusted sources of information AND use every available electronic trick and scheme  to peddle advertising to readers? I don’t think so. My argument is that the “trusted source of information” gig is a separate, viable business. That’s what we have to sell because it will serve advertisers well. That requires newspapers to respect the lines between news and advertising now and far into the future.

Being a “trusted source of information” should become the newspaper industry’s accepted mission and a viable operating strategy.