Rules of the Road: Business and Advertising
Business and Advertising
- Separate editorial and business roles where you can – but accept that it’s sometimes impossible in smaller shops.
- Be forthright with advertisers and funders about exactly what they’re buying.
- Identify advertisers when you write about them or topics that relate to their business.
- Tell readers about any line-blurrings that make you think twice.
Glenn Burkins, Qcitymetro
The battle of independence vs. revenue
Most of my discomfort has been around money. The arts and science council here is my biggest advertiser. When they call me up, just like they do every other reporter and say, "Hey, we're going to have a press conference, can you come out?" I'm fully aware that I've got a yearlong contract with them that goes a long way toward underpinning my site.
When you are the journalist as well as the ad sales person, it adds a layer of discomfort. It's tough when you're so close to the people who are also putting the money in your pocket. Of course I have people all the time who, in exchange for an ad, want a story. And we have to explain to them in a very polite way without scuttling the deal that those are two different conversations. We're not going to forfeit our credibility or our independence for a few hundred dollars.
When you are the publisher as well as the editor, it's a little harder. You start looking around for someone to blame, and you're the only one standing there.
The difference is that with a bigger organization, you can always blame the other guy: “Those bastards in the newsroom – I can't tell them what to do!” When you are the publisher as well as the editor, it's a little harder. You start looking around for someone to blame, and you're the only one standing there.
A year ago, I had some political ads on my site. One was from a mayoral candidate. The Republican bought ad space on my site, the Democrat didn't. Every time I sat down to write about that campaign, I knew in the back of my mind that one candidate had given me money and the other one hadn't. And I didn't like that at all. I can honestly say that I didn't do anything different because of that. But out in the community I heard speculation that I was favoring the Republican. I heard from people who were working with the Democrat that their candidate wasn't getting a fair shake because they didn't have ads on my site.
David Boraks, Davidson News
I’m no longer just a journalist, I’m a business owner
I do not believe in what we sometimes call pay for play. One of the reasons I don't work at big dailies any more is that I had been asked by a paper's editor to write about advertisers, and I just got tired of that. So it can happen at those levels.
I try to make sure that I write about all the businesses here, not just the ones that advertise with me.
We write about advertisers on our site. It's inevitable in a small community. I try to make sure that I write about all the businesses here, not just the ones that advertise with me. Anybody that wants to can make a claim that I wrote such and such an article because somebody was an advertiser. I need to make sure I have the ammunition to be able to say, that's not really fair, here's why.
I work very hard to train the ad sales people. When they first come, in I give them my spiel, and I'm a little bit of a Nazi about it, I'm afraid. But they need to understand that there really can't be any quid pro quos or understandings that buying an ad on our site equals some kind of coverage.
Practically speaking, when I go out in the community, people know I'm the publisher, and I interact regularly with fellow business owners. I just make sure people understand: if they want an ad they need to talk to these people over there – I don't have anything to do with it.
I'm beginning to understand that I'm no longer just a journalist, I'm a business owner. I'm trying to keep the two sides separate, and there's a constant tug of war there.
At the [Block by Block] conference in Chicago, Howard Owens said that you have to think of the small businesses in town as your clients, your constituency, as well as your readers. Hearing him explain that made a huge difference to me. I'm beginning to understand that I'm no longer just a journalist, I'm a business owner. I'm trying to keep the two sides separate, and there's a constant tug of war there.
The only way this is going to succeed is if the journalists have a very strong sense of journalistic ethics but they're also willing to open their minds a little bit to running a business. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. It requires vigilance.
Howard Owens, The Batavian
Advertisers are also community members
To me, the main thing is, protect your audience – that's where the money is. Take care of your audience and the advertising revenue will follow. And in a small community like this, a lot of my readers are also my advertisers.
My advertisers are part of the community. If they do something good, even if it is a little puffery, they deserve some recognition. Non-advertisers, frankly, have a higher barrier to cross.
There's one business in town we've done a lot of investigative stuff on, and they'll never advertise with me. But the stories had to be told. The out-of-town owner eventually had their ad agency call me up and inquire about advertising. Their thinking was, if our competitors are advertising on the site, we should be too. I said, “Look, I want to be clear, just because you're buying an ad, this story isn't over – I'm not dropping it.” She still went ahead and set up the appointment, and then didn't keep it. I never heard from her again. So maybe I scared 'em off.
One thing I will say is if an advertiser wants some little puff piece, I don't have a problem with that. I know some purist journalist types would see this as soiling themselves. My advertisers are part of the community. If they do something good, even if it is a little puffery, they deserve some recognition. Non-advertisers, frankly, have a higher barrier to cross. I'll go out of the way a little more for somebody who puts money in my mouth – that's just the way it is.
Liz George, Baristanet
Finding other ways to connect with businesses
You're not going to ignore the story because the person's your advertiser, if it's something the community should know about, or is of interest. But you're not going to shill for your advertiser.
What we are up against is how many people will call you out on perceived breaches of the line between editorial and advertising. Sometimes we'll write about somebody, a bad restaurant review, and commenters will say, ‘Oh wow, I guess they didn't advertise with you!’ And the funny thing is, the person did advertise with us. But nobody's sitting there keeping track. The ads move around. You refresh the page and different ads appear. And you can't win. If you give a good review, they'll say, ‘Oh, are they going to buy an ad next week?’
You're not going to ignore the story because the person's your advertiser, if it's something the community should know about, or is of interest. But you're not going to shill for your advertiser. That's the decision you make all the time editorially: When is it story-worthy and when is it crossing the line?
We do a post, periodically, less frequently than monthly at this point, that we call “And Now a Word from our Sponsors.” If there are things about businesses that have supported us that we think are of interest to our readers, but we want to say clearly that these are people who advertise with us, we'll combine them in a post. We have a special logo for it.
The other way to handle it, too, we'll tweet and Facebook things that we might not write about editorially.
The other way to handle it, too, is if people ask us for a lot of favors, even people who don't advertise with us, we'll tweet and Facebook things that we might not write about editorially. We'll become friends with them on Facebook, we do other things to connect and support the businesses. But the more successful we get, the more it seems everybody wants something. We have a self-serve calendar, and occasionally we'll say to someone, look, you can't post a yoga class that you're charging for that's repeated every week – that's not the same as an event!
Scott Lewis, Voice of San Diego
We’re transparent about where our revenue comes from
I always assumed when I was a reporter there was this clear line. But when you look at it more realistically, the line is hardly clear. An alt weekly will do a sex issue or something like that – they do that for their advertisers. They're obviously performing a service for a certain type of funder. So is it OK for a grant maker to help you come up with a new focus of your content? When does it cross the line? When it comes down to an actual story? We've had to wrestle with that.
So is it OK for a grant maker to help you come up with a new focus of your content? When does it cross the line? When it comes down to an actual story? We've had to wrestle with that.
It's never as easy as some donor calling up and saying, “Back off this story!” Let's say a funder is upset with a story – a major donor. Often, the complaint is not about the bias of the story, or the angle. It has to do with accuracy. That's a very powerful technique to get at us, and one that I hadn't imagined having to parry from someone who funded us. And yet true and false, and correct and incorrect, isn't always that clear. So that brings up some interesting discussions. Are we going to look into this as an accuracy issue just because it's a donor? Do they have a good point? Or are we actually not looking into it because they're a funder – so we actually punish the funder.
True and false, and correct and incorrect, isn't always that clear.
How do you handle that? We've decide to treat it like we would any other complaint about our accuracy. In six years we've only had four or five issues where a funder has gotten involved this way, and we've always been proud of how it turns out.
We're transparent about where our revenue comes from. We'll even highlight people if they have a tangential relationship to our content or our funding if they're mentioned. That invites consequences. People use it to draw conclusions about why you wrote something this way instead of that way. You've got to just let your credibility stand for itself.
The chief of police in San Diego has a lawyer, and he objected to part of a Fact Check feature that we ran. The police chief had claimed that if a tax hike failed, then the police would be required to start responding to calls by phone rather than with a car. We pointed out that that's actually what's happened already for thousands of cases, and that his statement was false. Among all the fact checks we've done it was one of the cleaner ones! But this lawyer was pretty upset. He figured out we had a sponsor for the fact check, and this sponsor had signed on to a campaign against the tax hike that the police chief was talking about, and he charged that's the reason we did the fact check.
Tracy Record, West Seattle Blog
Mention advertisers in every instance
When I worked in TV, I probably wrote about advertisers or did stories about them over the years and had no way of knowing whether that company was an advertiser. At West Seattle Blog we decided, when we started selling ads three years ago, every time we mention an advertiser in any context – whether it was good, bad, event calendar, news story, whatever – we would identify them with a little parenthetical phrase that says "WSB sponsor." And if you ever want to know who our sponsors are, you can look at one page on the site, identified in the tabs, that always has the current list of sponsors.
In big media there might be some pressure because, if you put an advertiser in a bad light, and they make a stink about it, you might be talking about a five or even a six-figure advertising contract. In our case, we don't have an ad that runs more than several hundred dollars. And frankly, if I had to write something that wasn't favorable about sponsor X, and they chose to pull their ads, wow, OK! I don't really want them in the fold anyway.
Andrew Chavez, the109 and Schieffer School of Journalism
Covering stories and handing out business cards
Since we're not a legacy product, we're trying to grow audience while simultaneously trying to cover the community. And with a small staff, that audience-building component is often part of their job along with the news-gathering component. There simply aren't the resources at a site this size to devote separate people to all of those tasks and still cover the community at the depth necessary to pull this off.
So our community manager, for example, goes out and visits neighborhood association meetings to talk about the site and to see what's going on out in the neighborhood. But at some point she might be in a position to write a news story off of what she's learned in that meeting. So she may walk in handing out business cards and giving a little talk about what the site is and telling people to sign up for our newsletter and all of that, and by the end of the meeting she may end up taking notes and having to pass that information along to a reporter – or even in some instances put together a short little story about what happened in the meeting.
Mike Orren, Pegasus News
We sometimes cross the line but are always transparent
There's a single phrase we used on a lot of material that we felt cured a lot: we'd say, “Our friends and advertisers at blank want you to know this.” For instance, we would only allow advertisers to run contests on our site blog. And every one of those entries starts with "our friends and advertisers at the Granada Theater are offering two free tickets to such and such a show."
It was even more of a straddle in early days before we had a full time sales staff. There was one case where I went to visit a new retailer in town. They were doing something very interesting and innovative, but we were there to talk about advertising. And they wound up running a small campaign with us. I came back to the site and wrote about what they were doing. But I included in the post story note, “I learned about this while we were there to talk with them about advertising. I would have said the same thing whether they advertised or not. And if you disagree with anything that I've said, the comments are open below.”
So we would certainly sometimes cross lines, but always being super-transparent about it. The way we always coached our folks was, don't worry about how it looks; just be fair. So it may look bad that I was on a sales call and learned something and decided to write about them. But I'd rather do that then not cover it and somehow penalize both us and a prospective customer.
Lance Knobel, BerkeleySide
Out in the community but conscious of the division
The other day the news broke that the Claremont property [a grand old Berkeley resort] was being put into bankruptcy. We wrote that unhesitatingly even though I know [our salesperson] is talking to the Claremont, trying to get them to advertise.
We're conscious of the state-and-church issue. The only person who's currently being paid by Berkeleyside other than tiny amounts is our advertising person. Our three editors are not going out and saying, as part of our work, you must advertise on Berkeleyside. Of course, when we do see people, I don't think any of us feel any compunction – particularly if it's not during an interview -- to say, “gosh, you should think about advertising on Berkeleyside.”
So it's a murky line, unquestionably. I don't know that this is new. If you were running something like, say, the Truckee News, I would suspect 30 years ago the editor there knew every single store owner in town and saw them at the Rotary Club.
Paul Bass, New Haven Independent
We haven't had any real problems with the money. After 30 years here in New Haven, I have a pretty good idea who not to ask. We tend to not ask people who want to control what you write.
Steve Buttry, Journal Register Company
Transparency is not an inoculation, not by any stretch. But failure to disclose always puts you in a bad position when something comes out.
All you are selling is access to an audience that trusts us. And if they don't trust us, you've got nothing to sell.” That's true whatever the size of the organization.
One of the best things I ever heard on this topic came from Michael Gartner when I worked at the Des Moines Register in the 1980s. Michael was company president at that point, in charge of the business, but he's got long news-side roots. At an employee meeting, somebody in ad sales wanted everyone to know how much a particular story had hurt sales efforts. I'll always remember Michael's response to this. He said, “Let's be clear: All you are selling is access to an audience that trusts us. And if they don't trust us, you've got nothing to sell.” That's true whatever the size of the organization.
So you need to think, OK, are we doing something here that in actuality or appearance is going to damage that trust? And if so, what do we need to do? Sometimes it's going to be an effort at transparency. Sometimes it's going to be being explicit with the advertiser about what they're buying and what they're not buying.
When it's a one-person shop, you have to handle that conversation – to say, OK, I'm just selling you an ad, that's all you get. When I do the story it's got to be independent of the ad, because I'm out of business if people don't trust me. And in a small town, they know that's true.
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