Editor's Views: Distinction between news, ads important to maintain

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Scott Angus
Saturday, February 8, 2014

Newspapers and their websites have two types of content, news and advertising, and never the twain shall meet.

If only it was that simple.

In most cases, the differences are clear. The information differs in substance, and news and ads look different.

To be blunt, news has more credibility. It's reported and written by people who have no stake in the outcome. Reporters and editors do their best to present all sides and let the chips fall.

Advertising, on the other hand, is typically a one-sided promotion intended to sell a service or product. Advertisers are afforded latitude in making claims about what they sell. I'm not saying they are dishonest, but they pick information that puts the best light on what they pitch.

Among areas where things get murkier, however, is business news. We've labored to clearly define what's news and what's advertising. We're reasonably satisfied with our policy, although some businesses continue to question it.

Is it news when a business takes a creative approach to promoting its products? Some business owners think so, and they push us to write news stories about their promotions.

For example, what if a grocery store offers a free trip to Florida for the customer who buys the most oranges in a year? Sorry, but that's not news. It's a good promotion, but it's another way to sell oranges. If the store wants it in the paper or on our website, the store will have to pay for an ad.

It's important that we draw a line between news and advertising and that we respect it. First, we need the money that advertising generates. If we gave every business a story for its promotions, our advertising volume and revenue would plummet. Second, we need to be consistent and treat businesses the same. Finally, we need to uphold the standard that information in our news columns has value beyond promoting a business.

According to our policy, some things that happen at businesses deserve coverage. Significant personnel changes or developments, for example, are typically worth short stories in our Business Briefs section. So are new buildings or additions or changes in product lines that could affect employment and the local economy.

Big developments that involve dozens of jobs and millions of dollars warrant even bigger stories and might land on the front page.

Obviously, judgment is involved in many of these, and we do our best to be fair and consistent. In all, we consider the wants and interests of our readers.

In recent years, as newspapers and other media companies have pushed for new revenue sources, some trends have blurred the line further between news and advertising.

Advertorials have been around for a few years. They typically are ads or sections presented like news, but they are clearly labeled as advertising and not the product of the news department.

Now, something called “native advertising” is popping up on websites and social media. It's intended to blend with the format and deliver a message in the context of other information. Again, these should be clearly labeled as advertising. We shouldn't try to fool readers into thinking that advertising has the credibility of editorial content. Native advertising hasn't come to The Gazette or gazettextra.com yet, but it could. If it does, we'll move cautiously and work to be upfront about our intent.

Amid the evolution, another thing remains constant when it comes to advertising and news, and it surprises some people. Advertisers don't get special treatment in the news, no matter how much they spend.

As with all of our policies in this area, that one goes to our credibility. Readers must be able to trust us. After all, that's what we sell.

Scott W. Angus is editor of The Gazette and vice president of news for Bliss Communications. His email is sangus@gazettextra.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @sangus_.

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