News on a Platter
A Toronto Agency is getting fat on clipbook journalism
“Generally speaking, all-season tires, such as the Michelin XA4, are so good that they meet the needs of 90 per cent of Canadian motorists, says Michelin.”
These sentences are taken from a file of newspaper filler supplied by News Canada of Toronto. They are not advertisements. The headline on the front of the file calls them “the clipbook of free features for newspapers.” The clipbook is 24 pages long with an average of 100 articles at about 500 words each, laid out in newspaper style on glossy paper, and ready to cut out for insertion into a newspaper layout. News Canada is sent free every month to nearly 1,300 newspapers across Canada. “The newspapers give us nothing,” says News Canada editor Terry Wheelband. “They’re not our bread and butter.”
The service was founded 4? years ago by Paul Aunger, a Ryerson Journalism graduate. Since then the service has carried articles from more than 250 commercial and government interests. Contributors to News Canada, such as the Bank of Montreal, General Motors and Betty Crocker, pay $413 and up to have their articles included. Some of the articles are helpful service pieces, but in many cases they are simply advertisements for the contributing company in the guise of news features. They are not identified as ads, though some bylines include the name of the company for which the writer works, and no payment is made to the newspapers that publish them.
News Canada carried a supplement last July on the federal budget. None of the articles had bylines and only one person, Finance Minister Michael Wilson, was quoted. All the pieces were positive, unquestioning explanations of the budget, with headlines such as “New tax exemption can benefit all” and “Improving tax fairness.” The only indication to readers that the stories were written and paid for by the federal government was the (NC) date- line on each.
The nature of the service poses hazards for both newspapers and their readers. Newspapers that pick up and run stories provided by News Canada without identifying them as stories written and paid for by companies or groups with vested interests are undermining their own credibility. Readers, meanwhile, are likely to assume that they are reading stories written by reporters from a bona fide news service.
Yet News Canada is very successful and is regularly signing new clients. One of its clients is the Bank of Montreal. Brian Smith, manager of media relations for the bank, doesn’t worry about the ethical questions of publishing ads that look like news. “It’s a paid service. It’s part of the newspaper editors’ duties if they feel someone is trying to flog a product to treat it as such.”
News Canada‘s Wheelband has no qualms about what many editors would call “advertorials.” “It’s a great idea. Everybody seems happy with it on all sides,” she says. According to News Canada, 60 per cent of the papers that receive the file use at least one item, and half of those are used as is.
For the most part, the pieces are picked up by small-town weekly papers-the dailies have little use for them. And there are editors who use News Canada and recognize the danger. Kenora’s Daily Miner and Newssometimes uses clips from the service, but editor Ross Porter gives the file to the sales department. The sales manager appeals to local commercial interests to sponsor the articles as advertisements.