January 26, 2012

Orono, Maine — On the evening of Jan. 13, I sat down with my home-delivered copy of The Bangor Daily News. I was drawn to an historical insert detailing the pasts of seven Maine businesses between 64 and 158 years old. I opened the broadsheet.

Each of these seven businesses — among them a charter bus line, a sign manufacturer called Bangor Neon, an auto repair outfit, and a nursery and garden center — received a full page of favorable coverage. The articles detailed the rich histories of these companies, as well as the fine work they are doing today. “It was 64 years ago when a hard-working man started a small business that grew to become the local icon it is today,” the paper wrote of Bangor Neon.

Of Joe Cyr, president of John T. Cyr & Sons bus line, the paper said, “It has never been ‘all business’ for Joe; he’s always been very active in his community, serving on the boards of such institutions as St. Joseph Hospital, Merrill Merchants Bank, and the Old Town-Orono YMCA. In fact, Joe had been one of the first, and strongest, supporters of the new field house at the Orono YMCA.”

Something was off. The font in the stories differed slightly from the standard type in the rest of the newspaper. All seven full-page articles were written by the same Bangor Daily News staffer, a David Fitzpatrick. Below his byline was written “The Bangor Daily News.” The stories had the look and feel of straight news coverage, but made me feel uneasy. There was no mention of advertising either above or below these articles.

Puzzled, I returned to the front page of the insert. Above the insert’s grandly displayed title, “Maine’s Progressive Businesses,” were these tiny words: “Advertising supplement to The Bangor Daily News.”

According to the author of the articles, these stories focused only on companies that had previously purchased advertising from the paper. Editors, though, weren’t transparent about this with readers. Atop each of the seven full-page articles extolling the virtues of the businesses, there was no note to readers indicating the stories were linked to money coming into the newspaper. The content was delivered on broadsheet newsprint, not the smaller inserts of, say, Best Buy offerings or Parade magazine, which set the content apart from a paper’s own news. And the newspaper’s name listed beneath each of Fitzpatrick’s bylines seemed likely to confuse readers into believing these were standard news stories on Maine businesses.

At the very top of this insert front, there is a disclaimer. But even that disclaimer does not make it clear that the businesses featured in the section were selected because they are advertisers with the paper.

The minuscule disclaimer is not enough. This insert feeds readers copy that looks like vetted news. Take a look at the insert yourself, and see if you think the coverage of these businesses is clearly labeled. In the version of the insert published online, the notice that the coverage is linked to advertising is invisible unless one zooms in considerably on the front page.

“The omission, whether on purpose or accidental, could lead people to believe [the work] was done with the same sanctity that general news reporting has, and unfortunately, trades on that credibility,” said Pam Fine, journalism professor and Knight Chair at the University of Kansas.

Some papers across the country do run similar so-called “progress editions,” Fine said, that promote businesses. The weekly Carolina Forest Chronicle, for example, published in April an advertising section titled “Snapshots of Progress” that contained many commercial promotions in the shape of journalism.

The Daily Freeman-Journal in Webster City, Iowa publishes an annual progress edition, and businesses that purchase ads in the publication are allowed to pitch a story to the newsroom showing that what they’re doing is innovative. The paper’s advertising manager said an ad purchase doesn’t guarantee that a business receives coverage in the progress edition, or that any coverage will be favorable. The articles are written by newsroom staffers, not advertising employees.

The Daily Gazette in McCook, Neb., also publishes progress editions containing positive stories written by reporters and, likewise, pages in the section are not reserved only for companies that place ads in the paper. I found these examples by Googling “progress edition” and “news,” and there were more examples than those reported here.

Many newspapers and magazines publish ads that have the look of news articles, but they typically include the words “paid advertisement” above the promotion, and do not carry the name of the host publication as the provider. Regardless of labeling, the Society of Professional Journalists urges newspapers to simply “shun hybrids that blur the lines” between advertising and journalism.

David Fitzpatrick, author of all seven articles in “Maine’s Progressive Businesses” works in the paper’s advertising department. He told me in a phone interview that the companies chosen to receive favorable coverage are only those that bought advertising in the newspaper in the past. For this particular promotion, he said, he identified companies that had bought ads from the paper and then selected companies that were more than 50 years old, before singling out seven businesses to be celebrated. Fitzpatrick said the businesses did not pay a direct fee to receive the favorable treatment. Fitzpatrick agreed that the coverage of the seven businesses was entirely positive. “[The articles] are very favorable, obviously,” he said. The paper has published progress editions for many years.

Todd Benoit, the paper’s director of news and new media, said in an email that “[T]he product is marked as advertising and it is not part of the news section of the newspaper. We create that separation so that no reader is confused about what is news content and what is advertising content.” But I was initially confused, and I have a Ph.D. from a journalism school.

I showed the insert to a class of mostly junior and senior journalism majors at the University of Maine, and only one student recognized the articles as straight advertising: a young man who knows David Fitzpatrick and the kind of writing he does for the Bangor Daily News.

Readers have virtually no way of knowing that the upbeat coverage of the businesses is connected to paid advertising. Even if readers saw the extremely small identification of an “advertising supplement” on the front page of insert, is that enough? Readers don’t know the content inside is a thank-you to companies that have written checks to the paper. The section’s front page boasts in very visible type that “Maine has a rich business history, and within these pages you’ll find great examples. And we’ll honor seven of those businesses that have stood the test of time with in-depth histories.” We’ll honor seven of those businesses…with histories. This language leads readers to believe The Bangor Daily News is independently appraising these companies.

When flattering news coverage is in any way linked to paid advertising, news providers have an overriding obligation to fully disclose that quid pro quo to the public. Of course, it would be better if news outlets simply resolved not to flirt with deceiving their audiences in the first place.

I asked Michael J. Dowd, the paper’s editor-in-chief, whether there were any characteristics of the promotional coverage that made him uneasy. He was silent for a bit, then said, “I’ve got to find out more about advertising supplements. I’m not prepared to comment at this point.”

Dowd’s arguments in the paper’s defense were that there could be no confusion about the nature of the special coverage because the word “advertising” was written on page one of the insert, and also because the fonts of the headlines, cutlines, and copy were slightly different than those used in the rest of the paper.

I’ve taken The Bangor Daily News to task in the past for other matters of journalistic integrity. After calling in September for voluntary buyouts of up to 30 employees, for example, the paper published not a single mention of the slashing in its print edition (editors did bury an AP brief on the buyouts deep in their website). I also criticized the paper in Columbia Journalism Review when editors fought repeatedly against correcting factual errors I identified.

The sin of conflating news and commercial advocacy, though, is more severe. The distinction between news and ads should never be a head-scratcher.

Many Mainers consider The Bangor Daily News the state’s primary newspaper, stronger than the financially hobbled Portland Press Herald. The paper has a paid weekday circulation of around 50,000 copies and a strong website that draws hundreds of thousands of unique visitors each month.

Dowd said that in future inserts, his paper plans to indicate that articles like those in “Maine’s Progressive Businesses” are linked to paid advertising, by stating that beneath the author’s byline. That’s a start.

Correction: The Bangor Daily News “progress edition” ran Jan. 13, not Jan. 12 as this article originally stated.

Justin D. Martin, Ph.D., is the CLAS-Honors Preceptor at the University of Maine and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin

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