For at least a couple of centuries, quality newspapers kept a “Chinese wall” of separation between advertising and news. At many newspapers, reporters were even discouraged from socializing with the ad staff, lest they start letting advertising influence what they wrote.
Editors often faced tremendous pressure to bend to the will of advertisers, but they held up surprisingly well. And for PR people pitching stories, the Old Media Rule was clear: Never mention advertising. If it’s news, it’s news, regardless of whether somebody’s paying for ads about it. Seeking to influence news decisions by mentioning how much your client spent on advertising was a sure ticket to the exit.
Now, of course, everything has changed. Last year, 143 American newspapers quit printing, and 14,775 newspaper employees lost their jobs, according to Paper Cuts. To a city editor worried about his job, the principle of resisting pressure from advertisers can seem academic.
This issue rarely gets brought up in discussions about the future of journalism, but it may be the most insidious threat we face, because it goes to the heart of the process: Integrity.
Until fairly recently, it was virtually unheard-of for a newsroom editor or reporter to say, “We can’t do a story about you unless you buy an ad.” When it happened, it was usually at a “Mom & Pop” weekly with a circulation of about 1,000 in the middle of nowhere.
But a mid-sized daily? Never.
Now, it’s happening, and it’s happening a lot. What this means, of course, is that newspapers are compromising their coverage. Once we know that money talks in the newsroom, how much confidence can we have in the objectivity of business news? What happens when a major advertiser has a scandal or product recall? Will it get the same treatment a non-advertising business would receive? And how will the newspaper treat a new business moving into town to compete with a long-time advertiser?
This bleeds over into the public arena as well. How might ad dollars from a major insurer affect the newspaper’s editorial policy on health insurance?
The Old Media Rule maintaining separation of advertising and editorial content is on life support at best. What’s the New Rule? It’s not entirely clear yet. I’m still not ready to start asking for coverage (or favorable coverage) because a client bought an ad. But where in the past I made it a point not to even know where a client was advertising, I now keep a a copy of the ad budget handy in case the question comes up. It stinks, but for now, one of the New Media Rules seems to be that advertising and news are linked.