Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Tallahassee | Tackling confusion on news vs. P.R.

On Sunday, the Tallahassee Democrat published a 16-page section timed to a much-anticipated Seminoles football game at Florida State University.

The section, "Momentum building at Florida State," included five and one-half pages of advertising, plus seven stories, according to one of my readers. It wasn't labeled a special advertising section, or given any other similar designation to make clear it was essentially a public relations vehicle for FSU sports.

To be sure, there were clues: Five of the stories were written by "Seminole Boosters'' authors, says my reader. That turns out to be the school's large and very well-staffed athletics and educational fundraising arm.

For example, a writer named Jerry Kutz wrote a Page 2 story about the Seminoles' quarterback. (Screenshot detail, left.) A quick search of the Boosters' website shows Kutz is the organization's vice president of marketing and communications -- an important fact not mentioned in the section.

No doubt, some readers guessed this wasn't a real news section, such as those produced by the newsroom, and appearing elsewhere in that edition of the paper. But plenty of other readers wouldn't have understood that distinction. They would have thought these game-day stories were as objective as possible, offering the balance and vetting that marks quality, trustworthy journalism.

To be sure, the Democrat's handling of this section was a big improvement over a similar situation at Gannett's New Jersey newspapers. There, the Asbury Park Press and other dailies published stories last year about the New Jersey Devils hockey team -- written by a team employee. The stories didn't always identify the writer as a team employee, suggesting instead that they were authored by a freelancer.

Here's a question for the Democrat and other dailies: What's the harm in adding the phrase "special advertising section" to the folios on each page? It hardly takes up any room. Plus, it'll go a long way toward bolstering a paper's credibility as an independent news source.

Note: the Democrat's circulation is 36,670 Monday-Friday; 39,584 Saturdays, and 47,040 on Sundays, according to Sept. 30 data from the ABC.


  1. This is truly sleazy. It is Journalism 101 not to mix advertising with news if you want to be a newspaper. Of course, if you don't want to claim to be a newspaper, you can print whatever you want. We see samples of this genre in the supermarket lines each week.

  2. Huh? What i your point? Missing whatever is.

  3. @9:18 PM

    If you do not see the point, you should leave the news business. In short, when someone picks up a newspaper the assumption is that anything written in the paper's fonts, style, etc., that isn't CLEARLY labeled otherwise, is a (hopefully) well researched, unbiased piece of journalism. This is what sets newspapers, news magazines, etc., apart from other publications. Once newspapers start publishing fluff written by whomever as a supposedly vetted story, then the public trust begins to erode as does the paper's own objectivity and its roll as a watch dog.

    Let's look at the example here: What if the FSU quarterback had some issues? Perhaps a past arrest? Maybe he didn't play so well in his senior year at college? Maybe he's had academic trouble that could possibly keep him off the field and he has to attend summer school as a result and if he fails that, he is not going to play? Do you think someone who fancies themselves a team booster will include these facts in a story they write? OK, you say, who cares the stuff is either in the past or may not even come to fruition. BUT what happens if it surfaces later? What will the reader reaction be? You got it -- "Hey Democrat, how come when you did your big story on the quarterback in April, you left this stuff out? You guys in bed with FSU? How can we trust anything we read on this topic from now on?" And hence, why should we buy your paper?

    Keep in mind too that people, especially sports fans, like to talk. What if these back stories begin to get around via word of mouth or sports radio or - God forbid - a blog? Once again, readers again will question the thoroughness and quality of the journalism in the newspaper story. "Why did the Democrat miss this? Did they leave it out on purpose? Are their reporters asleep at the wheel?" Again prompting the question -- Why should we buy your newspaper when other media seem to know more about what's going on than you?

    Lastly, so you say this football, it's just a game...well where does it end? And this is the thing that really scares all honest journalists. Say a new company was coming to town with a promise to create 200 high-paying jobs, hire all local people and take up residence in that lot that has sat vacant for 20 years on the east end of town. Oh, also their manufacturing process has about a 30 percent chance of poisoning the town's water supply -- a minor detail -- it is only 30 percent chance after all.

    Now say the local newspaper (and I want to be clear, I am not suggesting The Democrat would ever do this) does a special section on this company and the copy is written by, well, company men. Do you think for a second the drinking water aspect will even be mentioned?

    THAT 9:18 is the real point that I believe you are missing and one that scares the heck out any honest journalist out there, because in the end, we are only as good as our words. And if the public stops trusting us and we lose sight of the main mission, then we as news organizations (and I include TV and Internet) have truly dug our own graves.

  4. I know absolutely nothing about this team, but what possible benefit does it get from this sort of coverage versus the traditional sports coverage? I don't see what they hoped to get out of this and I am scratching my head trying to figure out what question they were avoiding with this approach. I find most newspapers are already homers when it comes to local teams and the most scathing coverage comes only from the alternative press. If the aim is to create more boosters, then how about winning more games, rather than be diverted to be concerned about the messager.

  5. Simply said it is all about the revenue.

  6. Correct.
    Tallahassee is doing what many Gannett papers have already discovered: there's money to be made in advertorial.
    So what if we make 30 shekels of silver for doing the university's bidding, Tallahassee would say to its readers.

    Gannett's new profit center: Judas Journalism,

  7. This stuff has been going on for years at
    G A N N E T T "newspapers." Westchester has had an annual section devoted to the municipalties - which in turn advertise. Stories are returned to reporters if there's "negative" info in what's supposed to be an "upbeat" infosection.

  8. So I have to ask, what is the point?

  9. With a couple mouse clicks it could easily have said advertising section on the folio. I'd like to think its omission was an oversight, because the entire publication, stories & ads were produced by the Seminole Boosters. I'd be surprised if the newsroom even saw it.

  10. People? Hasn't anyone read anything that corporate has sent out? Everybody who decries poor communication better start remembering that communication is a two-part process. To wit:


    To enrich lives by informing and inspiring consumers, by providing the ease and accessibility to connect them with their communities of interest, and by being a catalyst for the conversations that are making a difference every day.

    To help clients succeed through our unparalleled local-to-international portfolio of trusted brands, our ability to provide integrated marketing solutions, and our insight into consumer behavior.

    To lead the transformation of the media and marketing solutions industries.


    To be the trusted, leading media and marketing solutions company at the forefront of a new era in human engagement.

    What didn't you read? Anything about ethics. Quality reporting. Community standards. Community service. Reader service.

    We didn't dig our own journalistic graves. We outsourced it to the highest bidder a looonnnngggg time ago.


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