"Journalism, commercial interests should be kept separate."
So ran the headline of a post written by the Globe and Mail's public editor Sylvia Stead on Sept. 27.
In the midst of the uproar over Margaret Wente's plagiarism, Stead was busy trying to put out another fire, this one over an article from a freelance journalist who had written glowingly about the house she was selling. In this post, Stead concedes that Globe editors had erred in running the story.
The headline, however, speaks to the Globe's recognition of something broader and ultimately more important: their duty to maintain a clear line between editorial content and the interests of advertisers. One would expect as much from any serious journalistic outlet.
Allowing that line to blur signals a more serious conflict of interest than was printing the real estate article, or failing to be transparent about the misdeeds of a sloppy columnist.
Unfortunately, as careful readers of the Globe might well have noticed, the self-styled "paper of record" has not been living up to its responsibility. Not by a long shot.
'An Information Feature'
On Tuesday Oct. 2, the Globe's broadsheet came with an eight page section headlined "The Future of the Oil Sands." As issues of national importance go, it doesn't get much bigger than this.
Sitting at the cross section of so many important economic, ecological, and community considerations country wide, the public would certainly benefit from an in-depth and rigorously reported series on the topic.
At first glance, and even at second and third, that is likely what many readers thought they were getting.
Labelled "An Information Feature" in small type at the top of the page, this section was laid out, near as I could tell, the same as any other Globe section: From the column width to the size and style of the font; from the headings to the layout and integration of infographics and advertisements. At the top of each page, next to the date, sat the the Globe and Mail's branding. In large type in the upper left hand corner of the front page was the ambiguous word "Special."
Several paragraphs into the lead article, however, I got the sense that something wasn't right. Given its strong pro-industry tone, I wondered if this and indeed the entire section was an advertorial.
Advertorial is the industry term for an advertisement presented to look like journalism. Typically, an advertorial supplement would be laid out in such a way or would be clearly labeled so as to be distinguishable from a paper's editorial content. But this section was given a neutral label, "An Information Feature," and, after all, newsrooms do produce features that carry information. A reader might logically assume the editorial team is so proud of what they are presenting they might call it "Special." Plus, there was normal Globe branding on every page. At first and even second glance, there was no obvious visual cue that I might be reading bought public relations rather than news and analysis by Globe journalists.
On closer inspection, however, some curious signs emerged.
The pages were lined with ads from oil industry and government: the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Statoil, Sustainable Development Technology Canada, Devon Energy Corporation. And all the "reporting" pieces running next to the ads lacked bylines. Something was up.
The most conspicuous indicators that this content was not a product of the Globe's editorial team were the cleverly labeled "expert opinions." Those experts included Dan Wicklum, Chief Executive of Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) and a Q&A with Chris Seasons, president of Devon Energy Corporation Canada. That's the same Devon Energy with an ad covering half of page four of the spread.
On the front page was printed a link offering readers "more information." I typed it into my browser and arrived at the web version of the The Future of the Oil Sands package. There, sitting atop the webpage, was a leader board clearly displaying the answers to my questions.
The Special Information Feature had been sponsored by Devon Energy.
If it was labeled as advertorial online, why wasn't it labeled as such in print? Had the Globe changed its policy on how it displays advertorials? If so, why weren't readers alerted? Was the Globe's editorial staff involved in any way in the creation of the section? What was the label "information feature" meant to communicate to readers?
And how much say did Devon Energy and the other advertisers have in the crafting of the content?
Sylvia Stead, for one, would seem to be primed to provide answers, given they were about defining the separation of commercial interests from journalism. Isn't the line dividing the two blurred and moved when producing an eight page series on the oil sands for an energy company and slapping on your blue-chip brand to give it legitimacy? What if a university student had picked up the section and then referenced it in a university assignment on the oil sands? Wouldn't that place at risk the reputation of not just the Globe but also one of its trusting readers?
I also sought insight on a question that arose as I dove into one corner of the Globe's website. Clicking here, I learned that "the Globe and Mail's full-service, integrated content-marketing group" offers for sale various versions of "custom content," and makes a distinction between something called "branded content" that is said to be "produced with the same approach to quality journalism that you find in the Globe and Mail every day" and Special Information Features which "offer clients a greater degree of control over the storytelling and messages that accompany their brand ads." So what exactly were we imbibing here when reading about the future of the oil sands?
I called up Stead determined to get some answers.
Here was an opportunity for the Globe to prove that it had taken seriously the Wente affair. Editor-in-chief John Stackhouse had made much of the Globe's decision to make a change so that the public editor would now be accountable to the publisher rather than to his office. The change would give her more autonomy, he said, and thereby increase accountability to the public. Here was an opportunity for Stead to show her mettle under these new circumstances.
Few forthcoming answers
In response to my initial query for an interview, Stead responded by email that she was "about to go on vacation" and "would have to get back to [me] later." Fair enough. After some back and forth, Stead agreed that if I forwarded my questions it would make it easier to find someone to follow up with me in her absence.
I sent a series of questions immediately thereafter. That was Wednesday, Oct. 3. Repeated calls to the office of the editor-in-chief (to which I also forwarded the questions) before the Thanksgiving long weekend bore no fruit. When I followed up the next Tuesday, Stackhouse's assistant informed me that his office would not be answering my questions and that I would have to wait for Stead to return from vacation.
So I did. But when I followed up with Stead upon her return on Tuesday Oct. 16, she claimed she had not received the questions before she left and thus had not sent them to the advertising department who she now indicated would be responsible for answering.
Still without a response from the advertising department on Wednesday Oct. 17, now two weeks since my initial interview request, I appealed to Stead once more. She responded with the following;
"The Oil Sands section was an advertorial, not custom content. On page two of the advertorial you will see a bar which shows who is responsible for the content including the name of an outside firm and a Globe and Mail advertising manager. Globe editors and reporters are not involved."
Had I missed something? I quickly flipped to page two of the section. Indeed, there it was in barely legible type printed in a micro-thin band, just above the CAPP advertisement and below another bunk report on HR departments in the oil sands. It read:
"This report was produced by RandallAnthony Communications Inc. (www.randallanthony.com) in conjunction with the advertising department of The Globe and Mail. Richard Deacon, National Business Development Manager, firstname.lastname@example.org."
This one-line "disclaimer," it might seem obvious, is dubious. While it mentions that the Globe's advertising department partnered with an outside firm (a relationship no doubt deserving of more ink) to produce the content, nowhere does it mention the sponsoring advertiser, Devon Energy, by name as it does online.
If the intent was to be forthcoming to readers, why was this information placed in the fold of the second page, and in print one quite literally has to squint to see?
Why not put the disclaimer front and centre, an obvious marker to readers that there is a meaningful separation of editorial and advertorial content at the Globe?
The whole affair raised another troubling question. In this case was Sylvia Stead helped or hampered in her role as public editor by the fact that she now directly reports to the publisher, given that the publisher oversees advertising and other revenue generating projects? It was the publisher, one can presume, who authorized and directed the creation of the "Special Information Feature" that borrowed so heavily from the Globe's news branding and therefore its newsroom's credibility.
The elephant in the room
A deeper digging return to the Globe's content marketing website, The Globe Edge, provided me with some partial answers to these questions. The stand-alone special information feature -- which contrary to Stead's comments is a part of the Globe's "custom content" -- sells for a cool $169,684 for the eight page spread. A 12-page spread, like a recent one profiling the Canada West Ski Areas Association published on Wednesday Oct. 10, costs $241,086.
That's a lot of bread.
The Globe Edge promises advertisers to "Deliver [Their] Brand Through Journalism" though, notably, it does not promise its newsroom will produce that so-called journalism. After studying the pitch, I conclude the paper lures advertisers with the promise of the subtle but purposeful ploys that fool Globe readers cum consumers into thinking these section are editorial content. It is precisely because these custom content offerings blur the line and disingenuously trick readers into seeing them as credible that advertisers will pay the hefty price tag. It's one of the few edges the industry still has over Facebook and Google.
That may not be as concerning when the spread deals with something more benign like skiing, or when it is more obviously an advertisement for a product like a car. But this section on the oil sands cried conflict of interest. The next time the advertiser (an oil company, a government agency, etc.) is at the centre of a news story, can readers be confident the paper will fairly and accurately report on them?
I'm now less sure.
After my final efforts to get comment from the advertising department went unmet, I gave up. For its part, this oil sands advertorial had laid bare the risks of the tradeoff in making the public editor accountable to the publisher. The public interest seemed better served when the public editor reported to a newsroom, where the raison d'etre is to uphold journalistic standards, not sell advertising. Stead's response on this important issue was at best a non-reponse.
Why it matters
Of course, concerns over the purity of journalistic standards under any commercial news model are nothing new. And neither is the presence of advertorials themselves.
So why all my fuss?
Because it's no secret that newspapers are under extreme pressure to replace falling print advertising revenue, money that once could have funded a legitimate eight page investigative series on the future of the oil sands. How such pressures are skewing decision making inside Canada's leading national newspaper has implications for the health of our democracy. Perhaps the Globe's new digital paywall will pay dividends. But the paywall will only work out if the Globe maintains the editorial standards that citizen-run blogs and corporate content farms never have.
Frankly, I want to see the Globe figure out a way to fund good journalism. And if it does run advertorials, I want them to be transparent about that, with their readers and staff, and clearly label them. Maintaining journalistic standards underpins the entire newspaper enterprise. Without those standards, credibility wanes and without credibility, there is no readership.
Readers are what newspapers sell, as audiences, to advertisers. That's how the commercial news model works with all its faults and tensions. Undermine those journalistic standards enough, and the whole thing collapses on itself.
This tension is the elephant lurking in newsrooms across the country, and not just at the Globe and Mail. And I'd venture to say it threatens to corrode morale in the Globe's newsroom even faster than it will the paper's perceived integrity among readers.
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