Thursday, November 17, 2011

How Amex got the GCI news coverage it wanted; document reveals ties that papers don't mention

Gannett newspapers in 15 U.S. markets this month will publish short profiles of up to 150 small retailers, in a holiday shopping series sponsored exclusively by American Express.

But the stories published online so far are vague about the credit card company's involvement -- showing the nation's biggest newspaper publisher is once more testing the limits of Journalism 101 Ethics.

At papers in Asbury Park, N.J.; Brevard, Fla.; Louisville, Ky., and Phoenix, readers are told only that the stories are "presented" by American Express.

However, they aren't told the retailers are all supposed to be those accepting American Express cards, according to an internal GCI document provided to me by a reader.

The stories at the four newspapers all have the same one-paragraph format and cheery, upbeat tone. (See examples, below.)

Banikarim's version
The series is being coordinated by Gannett Custom Media, the advertorial shop that was turned over to Chief Marketing Officer Maryam Banikarim earlier this year.

Banikarim didn't offer many details when she described the series in her most recent monthly On the Road newsletter. She wrote: "Gannett is working with American Express on a cross divisional campaign to promote its Small Business Saturday initiative."

But the document, a guide for photographers working on the series, is much more explicit.

"In a deal with American Express," it says, "Gannett Co. Inc., is producing a sales campaign around Small Business Saturday called Shopping Main Street. The two-week campaign starts Nov. 23, a couple of days before Black Friday and will feature local small businesses that are American Express merchants in 15 Gannett markets."

'Trusted news' vs. advertising
American Express merchants are those retailers that accept its credit cards. The Shopping Main Street campaign is designed to drive shoppers toward small retailers on Nov. 26, the day after Black Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping period.

Although American Express is a major sponsor of the event, scores of other companies and organizations have signed on, too. It's part of a broader movement meant to support small, local businesses, according to USA Today.

In her newsletter, Banikarim points to the tricky task of balancing reader and advertiser interests where the company operates. "We not only provide trusted news and information," she says, "but seek to actively support the businesses and people in these communities as well."

The Amex campaign suggests she's now pushing for an even more active support role.

During the Nov. 26 event, Amex will give its card users a $25 credit for any $25 or more they spend at qualifying small businesses nationwide. The offer is limited to the first 100,000 card users who register to be eligible.

How were retailers picked?
The Amex campaign with GCI runs for two weeks starting next Wednesday, according to the photo guide given to me. Each participating paper is to publish two stories featuring five businesses in each one: a total of 10.

It's unclear how GCI reporters are to find Amex-accepting retailers. It may be as simple as hunting for merchants selling interesting stuff, then making sure they accept the card. On its website, Amex provides a database of merchants search able by Zip Code.

Among journalism ethics transgressions, this isn't the end of the world. Still, it violates a long-standing rule designed to protect a media outlet's credibility: Reporters don't favor businesses in order to please advertisers.

Plus, imagine you're a retailer that doesn't accept Amex. Aren't you going to feel like the credit card company bought publicity for its merchants without disclosing that information to readers? Seems unfair to me, and it does little for a paper's image at a time when public opinion of the media is already tanking.

Last spring, Banikarim was given control of the custom content portion of what had been ContentOne -- the old Gannett News Service, shrunk down and renamed. I'm fairly certain that "custom content" is the same as advertorial: puff pieces written with a particular advertiser or advertisers in mind.

GCI hired Banikarim in March for a new position where she's expected to identify more advertising revenue streams, after years of flagging ad sales that have driven down the company's stock price.

Which is which?
Following are examples of retailer profiles from each of the dailies that have published them so far. Note how similar they are; except for obvious references to geography, I bet you'd have a hard time matching the story to the newspapers: the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, Florida Today in Brevard; The Courier-Journal in Louisville Ky., and The Arizona Republic in Phoenix. Hyperlinks take you to the published story.

Chunky knits are this season's hit, according to Amy Yount, owner of Amy Inc., 7144 E. Stetson Dr. No. 140 in Scottsdale. She's seen them on celebrities and seen them flying out the door. "It's more casual," Yount says of the sweater versus a jacket. "We're so casual here, so it works." She carries the folklore shawl ($308), seen recently on Katie Holmes, and stocks handbags from Nicole Richie's line, House of Harlow, ranging from $220 to upwards of $600. And, she's in love with the Camilla jersey scarves, embellished as if with jewelry ($345).

Coming up with gift ideas for that serious businessperson in your life can be tough. Not to worry. We found the perfect gift at Mary Beth O’Bryan’s 8-year-old shop, Luna Boutique, 1310 Bardstown Road, next to Avalon, the restaurant her husband operates. You don’t have to be for or against the Occupy Wall Street movement to like the handsome wood and metal bear and bull bookends ($139).

You’re never too old to giggle over Zibits miniature robots that obey your commands (via remote control) and have their own line of accessories ($14.99 to $70) at Toymasters, 62 White St. in Red Bank. In the 27 years that Denise Zappoli has owned Toymasters, her three children have worked there, as have various other relatives, including nieces and nephews. “It’s a real family business,” Zappoli said.

Whether it’s feathered or beaded evening handbags by In’s ($10.95-17.95) or handmade pineapple wall plaques in hot tropical shades ($10-$30), gifts are all about bling and color at Debi Malone’s Pink Pineapple, 802 E. New Haven Ave. in downtown Melbourne. “This makes you happy when you walk in,” said Malone, who enjoys finding products she knows customers will love. “It’s a comment I always hear from everybody.”

Earlier: This post isn't presented by American Express.

Are these papers crossing an Ethics 101 line? Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write jimhopkins[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the rail, upper right.


  1. Absolutely this is a crossing of the Ethics barrier. Any editor worth his Gannett pinkie ring would have told the marketing people to stay the hell out of the newsroom. What is a sponsored story? It's ad copy. It should be labeled as such. In some markets, this "sponsored story" appeared with no labeling, just a USA Today bylined story which just happened to sit atop a half page ad. The newsroom people didn't see it until it was in print. Where does this end? Does Halliburton "sponsor" a story about nation building? Does the Occupy Wall Street crowd find a "sponsor" for a story about the merits of opposing corporate greed? Maybe the guy at Penn State sponsors a story about the merits of child-man love? This was misleading, deceptive, unscrupulous and another low in Gannett's race to the bottom.

  2. The Louisville advertorial was pretty slimey. It looked like a story and identified the writer only as "USA TODAY" with no "advertising" label. It did have a big box within the copy saying "presented by American Express."

    What the Gannett execs don't get, because none of them were ever journalists, is that you can sell out and get a few bucks in the short-term with this crap, but in the long run it totally undermines the credibility of those newspapers (errg, "trusted local brands")

  3. A journalism degree is not only irrelevant to Gannett, it's counterproductive. Inevitably J-school grads raise foolish and issues such as ethics and credibility and responsibility. Newsrooms ... er, Information Centers can't afford to get mired in the murky and arcane world of values.

  4. J-schools are putting out talented ambitious young journalists. Gannett should strive to be a great place to work to recruit the best. Unfortunately, things like this are disappointing and continue to erode our reputation.

    Maryam Banikarim's marketing iniatives should not have priority over editorial integrity.

    Martore is a finance person, not a journalist, and she is selling the journalist products down the river with these types of deals.

  5. I hear the writers of these puff pieces were each paid 30 shekels of silver.

  6. Never been a fan of American Express. A good deal of the success of their business model preys on 7th graders losing those precious "gift cheques" on field trips to the Knoxville World's Fair.
    Okay, I may have a bias.

  7. I'm glad I was "downsized" out of the company back in June. With initiatives like this, I wouldn't want to work for Gannett and would probably leave were I still employed. I encourage others to do it in my stead. There ARE other opportunities out there if you're persistent and creative.

  8. Finally legitimizes what business desk has been doing for years, shilling for local businesses.

  9. Not to get technical but custom content isn't quite the same as advertorials. Custom content is a huge industry and there is legit journalism produced within it. (Granted, not investigative of course. But decent profiles and such.)

    That said: It doesn't belong in a newspaper unless clearly labeled, and editorial staff shouldn't be working on it. If Gannett wants to move forward with this lucrative venture, that's actually a smart move. But it should be produced solely by the marketing dept (with freelancers I'd guess) and properly IDed in the newspapers. Would that not be a reasonable solution here?

  10. Folks, let's face facts. We are now run by TV people. When was the last time anyone saw journalistic integrity in TV? The rules are bent and broken all the time. Product integration is key. They have brought that mentality to Gannett. Do you honestly think these people give a rat's ass about integrity at these Gannett papers, most of which they have never heard of before joining the company.

  11. In Jackson (Miss.), our ad today is clearly marked "PAID ADVERTISEMENT." there is a teaser to the shopjackson Facebook page, but the "story," with a USA TODAY double byline, is about a someone in Jupiter, fla. weird. But as long as it's clearly marked as advertising, as this is, it doesn't bother me.

  12. 12:09 - the ad is not the issue. The concern is the editorial above the ad is basically contrived to fit an advertiser's needs. A true journalist will never accept this....rightfully so. Long after the check's been cashed, we will have to live with what this means to the type of news we plan to publish going forward.

  13. 11:04 you are so right. Banikarim and team are ex-Univision. And a very quick stop at NBC. They have no experience in working for a company that separates credible journalism from blatant marketing.

    And I'm afraid they see this as ok. Arrogance and delusion.
    Same thing happened with the Make A Difference Day promotion where Martore was made to look bad in those TV interviews run on Gannett stations.

  14. So Jackson decided to label it "paid advertising" but Louisville did not? I wonder why the discrepancy. There was another one in today's Courier-Journal. Perhaps the far-less powerful editors in Jackson have more integrity than in Louisville!

  15. Banikarim said in an interview when she was hired at Gannett that if she wasn't a marketer, she would want to be a journalist. Ha!

    Better go to j-school and understand the number one thing about journalism: editorial credibility.

  16. It's always good to be reminded that journalists in the newsroom are the only people in the building with any ethics. And that the rest of us are just whores. I always forget that.

    USAT journalists wrote the stories, not?!?!?

    This entire series seems to be being handled inconsistently across the company (labeled appropriately from site to site), but I'm guessing it's brought in a nice chunk of revenue. And revenue is what's keeping the ship afloat, wobbly as it is right now. So accept that the times are a changing, it's a fact!

  17. This same ad has been running in Detroit, both in the Free Press and the News. In the News, it was labeled as an ad and ran in a different typeface than the news copy. But in Gannett's Free Press, it has no 'ad' label and someone took the extra effort to reset it in the same face as the paper's news copy.

  18. Folks, this is not new. USA Today has been whoring itself for awhile. When Joe Buck's awful show was premiering on HBO, the net bought an ad and got a puff piece by a staffer placed with it. And another time, a story was "presented by Toyota." Apparently no one raised enough hell (or ethical questions), so the powers-that-be feel emboldened to pimp out other papers in the chain.

  19. Well, I hate to say it: But even back in "the old days" of idiots like Phil Currie, Gannett would never have ethically allowed such blurring on the editorial-advertising line.

    But money now talks - in fact has the only voice - and no one cares two-cents about "long-term" anything, let alone long-term damage to credibility such "content" has caused this company.

  20. 4:55 If Currie and his cronies were around, they would have done the same thing. He and his gang ruined many an editor's career because they didn't kiss up and implement News2000 or the latest edict fast enough. High level corp execs are lifers and do anything to protect their pay and pension. Once people retire or get out of the biz, they grow back a spine.

  21. This is no surprise. Gannett - especially USA Today - has become a leader in trying to monetize "earned advertising." That's a trend of several years in which advertisers have moved away from traditional ads and instead beefed up the P.R. push to place stories in media, and to play off bloggers following specific industries or deals. Gannett has turned the tables, but also erased the ethical line, by essentially charging for "earned advertising." It wants more than just the free trip or the loaned new car. It's particularly true in areas like travel where the mostly reliable pros on the newspaper at USA Today get mixed in with ethically challenged slop online from Demand Media. It's getting harder to know who is writing editorial for Travel Editor Veronica Stoddard and who is writing advertorial for Travel General Manger Victoria Borton. Then you get a product like the Vegas magazine where it is all mashed together. Gannett would like to imagine that readers think the advertorial is editorial, but in reality it makes the editorial look like advertorial. Nice way to slime the brand.

  22. Kate Marymont should resign in protest. That is, if she still is employed by Gannett. Haven't heard much out of our vice president for news lately, have we?

  23. Journalists at Gannett=Advertising Copy Writers

    At least let the reader KNOW it's an ad and not edit.

  24. A half advertorial "presented by American Express" was in Thursday's edition of the Clarion-Ledger. The other half of the page was an American Express ad. I wonder - did American Express pay for a full-page ad, or did we just give a half-page away?

  25. This has extended beyond puff pieces in print. American Express is running online ads on Gannett websites to tout Small Business Saturday. I just saw one such ad on, the site for The News Journal of Wilmington.

  26. If Kate M. resigns, where can she get a job? No where. Of if she gets something, the pay cut will be substantial. Expect her to stay quiet, and hang on as long as possible before she gets tossed. Mark Silverman has steamrolled her and is visiting sites (like Poughkeepsie) and then rolling out the free user generated content crap.

  27. To top it all off, Brevard hired a freelancer to do the "advertorial." Apparently with staff reductions nobody was available to write this "masterpiece."

  28. Sorry, I'm a little late to this party. In 2004, on my first day in the newsroom at a Gannett daily in NJ, I was put in charge of editing a new arts tab. The story ideas and sources were supplied by an outside entity, and this was OK'd in full by the top newsroom editors, and it was up to me to assign this garbage to staffers. I immediately expressed my concern to my supervisor, asking whether this was supposed to be a legit news product or an advertorial section, and her emotionless response was, "It's a hybrid." I told her it's one or the other. She had nothing to say at that point. This AmEx nonsense is the same thing.

  29. Confused about who the USA Today staffers are that are writing this.. Full-time staff, freelancers, correspondents from other Gannett papers?


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