I’m planning to write my final paper on the ethics surrounding overlap between advertising and journalism, and read some interesting articles about the topic this week. The first is from San Francisco Magazine about a recent incident at the SF Weekly. Glenn Zuehls, publisher of the SF Weekly and San Francisco Examiner, expressed his belief that there is no separation between the advertising and editorial departments, according to the San Francisco Magazine story.
Zuehls was angry because an advertiser had pulled a large amount of ads after what they thought was an unfavorable story. As a result, Zuehls wanted the SF Weekly staff to write a favorable story to be published on the front page. At a meeting on the subject, Zuehls said to the staff: “‘You’re not the New York Times. Just so you know,'” according to the article.
Reading through the rest of the article about the situation with the publisher shows several staff members positions on advertising content, which lay the groundwork for the ethics of the topic. This is an example of a common problem for publications: advertising is needed to pay the bills, but a publication needs to maintain independence.
The problem at SF Weekly goes beyond just the need to raise revenue and seems to be a problem between the views of the publisher and the values of the editorial department. What happens when the separation between the advertising and editorial departments of a publication goes away or the line is blurred? In this case, would writing a favorable article about an advertiser be any more acceptable if it was published in another place instead of the front page? What if there had been an editor’s note explaining the relationship between the paper and the company?
It seems clear that in order for the paper to maintain its integrity and responsibility to the public, publishing a favorable article about an advertiser without any indication of the relationship would be unethical. But what about when the ad is designed to also give readers beneficial information about the product, such as through sponsored features? Again, maybe not on the front page, but could this still be included in the publication?
A recent article in The Boston Globe looked at this issue when talking about the marketing company HubSpot, and the influence these kinds of companies have. They “are helping to reshape the media landscape into a place where the informational articles and videos people consume online are increasingly produced by corporations selling products, instead of news outlets,” the article states. People are getting information about products directly from advertisers, which is bad news for the journalism business model. This kind of content marketing is another way for companies to expose people to their products, but what might happen if journalists start getting involved? Is there room for collaboration between advertisers and journalists? Could journalists evaluate and provide information to readers on behalf of advertisers, or as has happened in the past, is that a line that just shouldn’t be crossed?