Adding Some Balance

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A guest commentary from Allan Bock

My recent series of blog entries titled Advertorial Blues generated a fair bit of comment, which was surprising to me, given the fringe nature of this topic. I also received some direct messages from people, who wanted to discuss the subject off the record, or to bring a new perspective to the discussion.

I received one such note from Allan Bock, the former editor of The Northern Pen and now the communications manager with the Labrador-Grenfell Regional Health Authority. Bock offered some interesting observations on this subject, drawn from more than 25 years in journalism. I am offering his perspectives today, as a guest column.

In the meantime, I am stretched a little thin this week by a work project, but also working on a summary piece on the latest broadcast ratings, which show an increase in viewers for CBC Here Now. I will take this opportunity to weigh in on Here Now, its competition the NTV Evening Newshour and a post-mortem on the new 5:30 time slot. I hope to get that item up later this week.

Adding Some Balance

By Allan Bock

Ive read with interest the contributions from Geoff on the so-called Advertorial Blues, the comments from those in the profession who have dealt with this sometimes thorny issue at their newspapers and magazines, and those who have commented on the submissions.

In a perfect world, it would be easy to draw a line in the sand and pronounce with a certain sense of smugness that editorial and advertising dont mix and never the twain shall meet. However, the last time I checked, were a long way from reaching perfection. Nor will we.

The fact of the matter is, unless youre working for a state-funded organization like the CBC, advertising pays the bills and you wont be publishing anything if your expenditures exceed your revenues.

I wholeheartedly endorse the need for separation between advertising and editorial. As many have said, without guiding principles that are implemented and upheld, any publication worth its salt will compromise its credibility and lose integrity in the eyes of the reader. There is, however, a method to assist advertisers in delivering their message to readers through the use of editorial copy and photographs. It has to be done without insulting the intelligence of readers or undermining the independence of reporters.

I was associated with the Northern Pen for 27 years first as a reporter and later as an editor. Founded by Bern Bromley in 1980, the paper serves the Great Northern Peninsula and Southern Labrador more than 70 small communities in a sparsely populated region from a base in St. Anthony. Given the demographics and the proximity to large retail outlets in Corner Brook, our advertising base was limited, but we had a core group of advertisers who were loyal and recognized the importance of supporting an independent voice that fostered debate on the issues and events that affected the development of their towns and the subsequent economy of the region.

We regularly ran advertising features that promoted grand openings, anniversaries and new product lines at business establishments. (By the way, I have a dislike for the term advertorial because its not a word, but unfortunately, its become accepted in the industry). We werent trying to fool our readers about the nature of the content. The tops of pages were clearly identified as Advertising Feature in bold print. The headline fonts were Times Roman to distinguish them from the headlines on the news pages.

Our approach also went a step further. We prided ourselves on writing human interest stories because we believed there were good stories to tell about people. In that respect, it was no different than the approach taken to regular features in the paper. Some examples come to mind: A husband and wife team who started a small takeout and over the course of 30 years turned it into a thriving restaurant that served good food, provided exemplary customer service, and employed more people than most would realize; a fishermen-owned co-operative that started with a small quota of shrimp parlays the revenues into establishing several processing operations in small communities that were largely ignored by the large multi-national companies; a teacher leaves the classroom and advances his small garage through investment, risk-taking, long hours and the sweat of his own brow to establish an operation that today is multi-faceted and a significant employer in a small town.

I dispute the notion that reporters shouldnt be tasked to write such stories. I recall a young reporter, just out of J-school, who was assigned to write an advertising feature on a small firm celebrating a milestone. I could tell that his J-school professors hadnt prepared him for one of the realities of working for a small community newspaper. He was reluctant to share his views with me when I asked him to tell me why he appeared so uncomfortable with the assignment. Finally, he intimated that the idea of doing an advertising feature made him feel dirty.

There was no need for him to feel ashamed, but his education had prepared him to have a disdain for anything that had to do with advertising. To conclude the story, he did the interview with the husband-and-wife entrepreneurs, wrote an interesting account of their struggles and triumphs, and told me afterwards that he took on a different view of such features from that point on.

Were there instances in my time where reporters were assigned less favourable stories about businesses that at one time or another may have been featured in advertising spreads? Of course there were. Thats when the editor or the publisher had to make it clear to businesspeople that news is news and advertising is advertising.

Im not suggesting there werent advertisers who believed our approach would soften our position on writing legitimate news stories. There were times when swords were crossed and opposing viewpoints were exchanged. However, our parameters were clear and if there wasnt agreement, there was always respect for the position.

I know this is an issue that is continually debated in newsrooms. My purpose for sharing these thoughts is not to change someones mind or strongly-held views on the subject. I only wish to add some balance to the debate and help readers of this blog especially those who dont have an intimate knowledge of the newspaper industry understand the purpose and the reasoning behind advertising features.

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Recent comments

  • Patton
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    The type of juxtaposition of theory and reality is not just found in the newspaper business, so I will start this comment with a very quick story: Twenty years ago, my wife was a clinical dietitian, overseeing the work of dietitians in 12 NL acute and long term health care facilities. Early on, she was visiting facilities in Conception Bay, and came face to face with reality in the form of a pastor / administrator. She was there for one day and worked that evening re-doing the menu rotation for his facility, because of the incredibly high sodium content in many of the items, such as salt pork. The next morning, she came in bright and early and met with the administrator. After taking a polite look at her work, the man took out a big red marker and spent 5 minutes putting big red circles around many of the new items she had placed in the meal rotation. Before she could even ask, he said My dear, you are not here to change the eating habits of 75 year old Newfoundlanders. We want them to die happy, not from shock. Put those items back where they belong. Eventually, she and the pastor became great friends and she was able to make some sensible adjustments and many positive changes.
    The newspaper business isn't a whole lot different in many ways. Selling ads to survive is a reality, even for the mother corp, when one looks at the hoops Donald S. Cherry has been able to have them jump through.
    Just as you pointed out, there is a lot of genuine human interest to be found with many of the businesses newspapers have as clients. As long as clients know they cannot buy reality, a productive peace can be maintained. Newspapers are at great risk and we need to help people realize the incredible value they bring to the communities they serve. They need advertising revenues to survive, and they need ethical and professional writing to provide an interesting foundation.
    That's my point of view anyway. And I'll give ya five bucks if ya put my name in large type with like nice borders and stuff, with a bit about me and how great I am. OOps...sorry.