Wheels of Fortune
Papers are publishing increasing numbers of advertorials. Is the credibility of the dailies taking a backseat to revved-up revenues?
Robert Reid has seen the advertorial battle from the front lines of his own newsroom. As a reporter and union chair for the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Reid remembers when the advertising department tried to introduce advertorial production into the newsroom back in 1989, just as staff were about to ratify their first union contract. At other newspapers, advertorials were increasingly common, but not at The Record. “There was consensus in this newsroom that we were getting into murky waters,” Reid remembers. “If you’re covering the news and find yourself writing paid advertisements, the line between news and paid advertising is blurred. Reporters, editors and photographers-we all thought that it compromised our ability to cover news and deal with the contacts on our given beats.”
The newsroom was afraid of losing reader trust. “If you see a reporter’s byline on copy that is not generated on its news merit, but is assigned as an advertising initiative, readers could believe, because they recognize the byline, that this is news,” Reid says. If forced to produce advertorials, Record staffers wanted bylines and photo credits pulled from the pieces, along with those attached to any legitimate editorial work published on the same day. In the end, Record brass solved the problem as many other Canadian papers did, by assigning advertorial duties to the advertising department, not the newsroom. Advertising and editorial stayed separate, but it took a union contract to keep the wall intact.
These days, reporters are generally exempt from having to write advertorial copy, but that hasn’t stopped the ad format from steadily encroaching on the pages of Canadian dailies.
Newspapers depend on advertising dollars to help cover the cost of delivering the news-subscriptions amount to just 24 per cent of any newspaper’s revenue. But papers must do better than break even-more advertising means more profit, and more profit keeps fickle shareholders happy. To win coveted advertising dollars, papers provide all manner of ways to promote a client’s message. Old standbys are display advertisements or run-of-paper (ROP), classifieds, inserts and flyers; more recent marketing innovations include belly bands, sticky notes and printed poly bags.
But there is another species of niche advertising that stealthily inhabits the pages of the paper. Though they’ve always been around in one form or another, advertorials have been appearing in increasing numbers of Canadian newspapers since the beginning of the 1980s. Disguised in the skin of an editorial article, advertorials are “added-value advertising,” encouraging the reader to take a closer look at the product or cause promoted by the advertiser by providing something extra to read.
When advertorials look so much like the real news, it can be tough to tell the ad from the Ed. Marketing reps rejoice, but reporters fret about integrity. The supplements can mean big money for newspapers, but at what cost to credibility?
Advertorial finds its way into the paper in many guises-as a single ad, a full-fledged article or a stand-alone section. Sometimes a single advertiser will sponsor a section, then sell ad space within to other advertisers with a common interest. The unifying factor is a soft tone and a layout designed to look just like the regular news. Content may come from editorial staff, from freelancers hired by a paper’s marketing department or from an outside source hired by the advertiser to design and write inserts. Fall and spring are the busiest seasons, with trade expos and nonprofit funding campaigns in full swing for typical advertorial clients like drug companies, hospitals and charities, various levels of government and business interest groups.
Newspapers print advertorials not to inform the public or carry out a democratic duty, but to make money, plain and simple. Though ROP advertising is more profitable than advertorials, the lousy economic climate of the last two years has forced the dailies to scrounge for new advertising clients. Comparatively cheap advertorial rates allow papers like the National Post to court unusual advertisers and reap the profits. At thePost, a six-page advertorial supplement like “Weld Expo Canada,” sponsored by the Canadian Welding Association, brings in about $96,000-a paltry sum compared to the $315,858 six ROP ad pages would have earned-but the CWA isn’t a likely ROP client. Newspapers risk the ire of their newsrooms because even small advertorial contracts are worth the effort.
The price of newspaper advertorials differs from paper to paper, depending on certain variables, such as the number of pages in the section and the use of colour. Saturdays are often the most expensive day to run an advertorial and the wider the circulation area (from local to multimarket or national distribution), the higher the price, and the higher the paper’s profits.
Toronto Star‘s special section administrator, Mary Tezak, estimates that a 24-page, full-colour multimarket advertorial would garner about $340,000. Advertorials alone bring in millions of dollars annually to the Star‘s advertising department. “We’re using more and more Mass Impacts (see sidebar) these days,” Tezak says.
Many advertorials run as stand-alone sections, although Globe and Mail advertisers have the added option of buying feature pages in the interior of most editorial sections. The average advertorial feature earns theGlobe between $18,000 and $145,000. For stand-alone sections like Special Interest or Partnership Marketing Supplements, the Globe charges between $74,000 (for a six-page Metro edition) and $253,000 (for a 20-page National edition).
The sections are definitely profitable, and most reporters don’t fault the dailies for trying to make money to support their untainted reporting. What reporters do mind is the often-lax labeling of advertorial sections designed to look like editorial product. While most papers have policies about differentiating advertising, including rules about layouts and fonts, an informal survey of several month’s worth of advertorials showed that there was little consistency in the application of those rules.
As the special reports editor at the National Post, Dean Cummer is the only editor in his newsroom, and one of few in the country, to deal with advertising directly. Cummer’s department produces 40 to 50 Joint Venture sections each year, designing the sections in-house and farming the writing out to freelancers, but it wasn’t always so. Post advertorials were once the sole domain of the advertising department, but when a copyediting slip-up plastered an 80-point headline about Canada’s “Navel” forces across the top of Joint Venture supplement, advertorials were handed off to Post staffers with real editing experience. Post strategy, Cummer says, goes like this: “Client X, you want to be in the newspaper. You want some type of advertorial-type stuff written. We can do a fantastic job for you, and do it in a professional way so it doesn’t look like the dog’s breakfast. You’ll be proud of it. We’ll be proud of it.”
The Post tries to produce advertorial copy that “is both credible and stylistically consistent with the rest of the newspaper.” Guidelines stipulate that the advertising client gets to see the section before it is published for fact-checking and proofreading purposes. Even so, Cummer says that it can be tough to keep advertorial clients from meddling with the piece. “Everyone wants to be an editor, everyone wants to be a publisher, everyone wants to be a photographer.”
While the Post harbours them in the newsroom, the Star keeps advertorials out of the building altogether, contracting the work out to a former Star employee who finds freelancers, edits the copy, lays the section out and sends it to press. The Globe and Mail is somewhere in the middle. There, the ad department designs the advertorials and contracts out the writing to freelancers.
Advertorial writing is usually assigned on a freelance basis. For many writers, it can be a plush gig in an industry that has paid about $1 per word for journalism content for more than 20 years.
Toronto writer Leslie Smith, who is also the president of the Toronto chapter of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada (PWAC), is one reporter lured by the promise of relatively easy money. “I have no shame. I call myself a media slut ? I will write anything for money,” she jokes. “It’s not the most prestigious job in the world, but it pays bills, and that’s important when you’re a freelancer.” For the past 20 years, the former Globe columnist has ghostwritten a 450-word advertorial column for a Toronto men’s clothier. “Korry’s Comments” appears twice-monthly in the National Post. Smith relies on a kind of personal shorthand with her client, plus two decades of experience writing about men’s fashion, to make the work go faster. “I’ve been doing it for so long, I can just toss ’em off in about an hour,” she says. “I’m getting very good pay for an hour’s work.”
PWAC’s general rate guidelines for freelance advertorial writers recommend 40 cents to $2 per word. While an editorial newspaper feature earns only 35 to 50 cents per word (about $1,000 per feature), the Post pays between $2,000 and $2,500 for a feature-length advertorial piece. “Magazine writing pays a buck a word,” Cummer says. “But magazine articles take a heck of a lot more work to do. It could take weeks, even months, to write. When you’re calculating how much you’re making per hour, it’s peanuts. With an advertorial, you’ve been given the contacts, you’ve been told what to write about-everything is laid out for you. A good freelancer can finish in two days. Twenty-five hundred dollars for two days work -it’s pretty damn good.”
And even better, no one will know who wrote the piece because most advertorial articles don’t run with bylines. “We’ve got some very good freelancers,” Cummer says. “We respect that they don’t want to have their byline on there. This isn’t Pulitzer Prize-winning material. Really, I don’t think readers care about by-lines; it’s more for the integrity of the writer.”
Smith knows that some journalists look down on advertorial writers. “It’s not a prestige thing because it’s sales as opposed to journalism,” she says. “You can hold your nose at it, but a lot of journalists do it on the sly.” Smith says that no matter what the project, all writers are selling a story. “When you write a story, you are saying to the reader, You want to read this. This is going to make a difference to you.’ And that’s what good advertorial does.”
Ellen Cohen loves advertorials. After 30 years in the newspaper advertising business, the Globe‘s director of advertising sales is not the least bit defensive about the sections. She says she often saves advertorials that interest her, like “Women’s Health,” stashing it on the coffee table in her den so she can read it thoroughly when she gets home from work. Cohen believes that the editorial department loves advertorials, too. “I believe it lets them focus on what they need to focus on. The rules are laid out, keeping church and state-editorial and advertising-very clear. It’s healthy and it adds content,” she says.
Cohen is wrong about the editorial attitude to her department’s special sections, but she can be forgiven for misreading her colleagues’ feelings on the touchy subject. Though many editors and reporters willingly admit that they hate the sections-“They cheapen us all,” one editor grouses-they were reluctant to go on the record for this article. “I would rather not be associated with any negative comments about them, because I don’t want to lose my job,” another editor warned.
Jennifer Wells, a former Globe reporter, now a business columnist for the Star, sees advertorials as a credibility issue. “At the Globe, we had to fight to ensure that ‘advertorial’ be stamped on every page,” she says. “There is a line between what is paid for and what is editorially pure.”
The Toronto Star recognized that line long ago, but it didn’t make advertorials more popular around the newsroom. Even before the paper began contracting out advertorial production, Star reporters weren’t expected to write advertorials. There was a special group in the advertising department who wrote nothing but. Advertorial writers were shunned by the editorial team, recalls Star ad staffer Mary Tezak. “It was like, ‘Those are the people that have no editorial integrity. They just go on lunches with those clients that advertising sets up.'”
At many papers, union contracts clearly outline policies about newsroom participation in advertorial production. Reporters who don’t want to write are often protected by newsroom collective agreements. At theGlobe, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada contract says that the writing and editing of advertising copy is not the duty of the editorial team. The Halifax Chronicle-Herald forbids any editorial employee to write, take photographs or edit/lay out advertising product. Other papers allow editorial staff to do advertorial work, but only on a voluntary basis and at freelance rates.
In 1989, the Star staff worried that advertorials would confuse readers and damage the paper’s integrity. While they managed to negotiate a contract that protected the newsroom from advertorial encroachment, their worries reverberate still in newsrooms across the country. Readers depend on newspapers for all kinds of information: on advertisements for consumer information so they know where to buy a car or when to see a movie and on a paper’s editorial content for news and information critical to their democratic rights. So what happens when advertising looks like the news?
Some readers get confused, that’s what happens. The Star‘s Mary Tezak says public responses to advertorials are often addressed to the newsroom instead of the ad department. “I think it’s perception that the Star wrote it,” she says. “But we didn’t write anything. It’s advertising.”
“We’re not trying to fool anybody,” says Dean Cummer. “The only thing we’ve got from the National Post is the little tiny logo in the corner. But even though we’ve made this look different from the paper, it’s still remarkable how readers mix it up.”
In the past six years, Advertising Standards Canada has received fewer than five complaints about advertorial deception. What does that say about readers? That they don’t notice the difference? Or they don’t care?
Don Sellar, the Star‘s ombudsman, thinks that readers care. After reader complaints and a few nudges from newsroom staff, Sellar took his own paper to task over an energy deregulation supplement funded by the provincial government. His editorial essay deemed the supplement “cheery, feel-good stuff” dreamed up by “government publicity factories.” But Sellar’s main objection was the section’s label, not the content. “I don’t have a problem with blatant propaganda if it’s properly labelled,” he says. “I just want it made clear who is responsible for the message. The Star gives you the name of the publisher on the editorial page-who is the publisher of this insert? When something is not labelled clearly, readers can be confused.” When advertorials fool readers, he says, “It’s bad for credibility. Readers might think that’s the Star‘s position on deregulation and privatization, and it’s not.” Still, Sellar thinks the Star can ethically continue to run advertorials. “You are leasing the presses to somebody, but something has to pay for the journalism.”
Toronto newspaper marketing consultant Len Kubas doesn’t see advertorials going away anytime soon. “Many editors and reporters believe that anything that smacks of commercialism is the work of the devil and should never be seen in newspapers in the guise of editorial,” he says. “I’m more tolerant of it than editors. I think that newspapers are going to have to start expanding the definition of what constitutes news. I’m leery of blatant puff pieces written at the request of an advertiser, but stories about merchants are not necessarily bad journalism. It would be terrible to have a “New Homes” section with no editorial in it. It’s just a trade-off that is made in a newspaper, where the editorial people don’t have the resources or the inclination to write about new home development, so they leave it to the advertising. They close their eyes and say, we didn’t write that.”