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Spinning the Media: The line between advertorial and content just got blurrier

When Neville Morris picked up the Sydney Morning Herald on September 7 2009, he didn’t expect to find himself quoted in a story promoting the company he works for.

“We were working with them [NSW Department of State and Regional Development] on a few projects and I gave them a whole lot of information on us, and the next thing I actually saw it in the paper myself and they hadn’t told me. So that’s where that obviously came from,” said Morris, Marketing Manager for manufacturing company Enretech Australasia.

The quotes were lifted from a form Morris submitted to the DSRD and later published in The SMH’s 400 word article. While the form declared that information provided could be used for media purposes, Morris says he did not envisage his words being used in quite this way. While Morris admits he didn’t mind the free publicity the article attracted, he did wonder what kind of article he was featured in.

Labeled a ‘Strategic Feature’, was it advertising or was it editorial? Like most people not familiar with the Herald’s corporate advertising lingo, he had no idea.

The Enretech article was part of a ‘Special Report’ called “Selling Australia to the World” which ran in the Herald’s Business Day section. It was just one of a series of four ‘Special Reports’ that ran in the Herald in the four months leading up to the NSW Export Awards.

Each month, The Sydney Morning Herald showcased a number of successful businesses in the areas of services, tourism and infrastructure, manufacturing trade finance and logistics.

Like Enretech, the businesses featured were not nominated by the Herald.

These Special Reports were paid for by the NSW Export Awards, whose major sponsors are the government agency Austrade and the NSW Department of State and Regional Development. Most of the businesses are in some way connected to these two bodies, including marine company GME’s International Manager Sean Griffin, who confirmed that the Herald had called him for an interview.

“It came about because of my involvement as a board member with the Australian International Marine Export Group. I think they had actually spoken to Austrade here in Sydney and said ‘do you have anyone who might want to offer a few comments?’” said Griffin, who is AIMEX’s Vice President.

The SMH’s sections editor Peter Gearin told the ACIJ that the commercial department estimated that the Herald and Sun Herald ran 104 Special Reports in 2008/09, with 101 scheduled to run across both mastheads in 2009 and 2010.

While advertorials put together at the request of the advertising department have run for many years at the Herald, the distinction that they be clearly marked as an ‘advertising feature’ seems to have softened.

Today, the Herald runs the following labels to mark advertorial content: “Special Report”, “Special Feature” and “Special Advertising Feature”.

We sent the example of the Austrade Special Report to SMH Editor Peter Fray, who responded:

As for the special reports, I note that the Press Council has recently declined to consider a complaint relating to a special report on independent schools published by the Sun-Herald last month. The council noted that the material had been properly tagged as a special report and met its guidelines.”

He attached the Australian Press Council updated their guidelines for advertorial content. (More on this Monday.)

While at first glance these type of reports appear to be editorial, even featuring a journalist’s byline, they are far from it and many journalists are concerned about the ethical implications of this.

Here’s how it works according to Business Development Manager of the Strategic Features division, Jacqueline Kaganov: a Special Report “is an expansion of one of the Herald’s main topic areas” such as finance or travel, while an Advertising Feature acts like an advertorial, and a Special Promotion will always be based on a specific event.

The Special Report definition is undoubtedly the most vague, and the Special Reports 2009 Powerpoint presentation produced by Fairfax media to pitch the service to potential clients brings it into sharper focus.

“A strategic feature is an opportunity to utilise Fairfax journalists to create a tailored, editorially relevant environment which you can benefit from by advertising within,” and provides an “opportunity to exclusively own all advertising space within the report”, the presentation says.

Former editor of the Australian Financial Review Gerard Noonan says that the need for advertising revenue generated by advertorial is no secret.

“No one in journalism shies away the fact that advertising is a significant proportion – in fact in most newspapers in Australia — it’s about 80 per cent of revenue,” he said. “I think most journalists are aware enough, though they may not be aware of exact percentages, that by far the majority of revenue comes from advertising.”

These reports pop up regularly, sometimes as a four-page write-up plugging certain companies in the Business Day section, other times as a lift-out on the latest festival at the Sydney Opera House.

Sometimes they are planned with clients up to a year in advance in their Special Reports Calendar. This is just one example of what senior Herald journalists are uncomfortable with. Urban Affairs Editor Matthew Moore said unclear labeling is a major problem with the paper’s Special Reports.

“I think the big issues we’ve had in the past has been when they haven’t been properly labeled and identified,” said Moore. “They’ve got to be identified, they’ve got to be labeled, because otherwise it’s deceptive. That’s the test, is whether you’re being true to your readers - in the same way as anyone who takes trips paid for by other people should be clearly identified as such.”

Then-SMH Environment Editor Marian Wilkinson expressed similar feelings when we spoke to her while still at the paper.

“If it’s presented as an advertising supplement and it’s clearly marked that it’s advertorial copy, I think that’s OK. If it’s not, if it’s set out in a way where it’s trying to pretend to be editorial copy, then I think that is a really bad move.”

The fact is that when a client pays for a certain number of pages in the newspaper, and are guaranteed all of the advertising space along with editorial that is highly skewed for their benefit, then “Special Report” is not an accurate label.

When the Herald uses these reports to promote an event, they not only offer this promotion to their paying client, but also the client’s partners in many cases.

When the Green Globe Awards — run by the Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW — was recruiting partners for the event that was held in June this year, the ministry’s Partnership Prospectus report stated that “all Partners will be recognised in a special feature in the Sydney Morning Herald following the Award Ceremony”.

The SMH acknowledged the NSW Export Awards’ sponsors Austrade and the NSW Department of Industry and Investment, which were both mentioned and had representatives quoted extensively in its ‘Selling Australia to the World’ Special Report.

One of the awards’ major sponsors, the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (EFIC), had one of the two ads that took up over a third of the two-page report — 40 per cent to be exact, as stated by the Strategic Features team’s presentation.

Moore also noted that resourcing is an issue when journalists are taken from their usual work and asked to write a Special Report. “I don’t think anyone likes them or likes working on them, and the unhappiness comes when people are taken from their other work and have to produce this sort of stuff,” he said.

Because of this most Special Reports are written by freelance journalists so staffers can be freed up to produce what they see as ‘real’ journalism.

Two journalists told the ACIJ that they had declined to work on the Special Report. One, a freelancer, said that he was concerned it could damage his reputation. Another, a staff journalist, said that she declined to write for a supplement because it was clearly advertising.

However, the demand on journalists to contribute to advertorial content is increasing and saying ‘No’ doesn’t work for everyone. Two freelance journalists and one staff journalist who frequently contribute to Special Reports refused to speak to the ACIJ off-the-record for fear it would ruin their prospects of future work with the Sydney Morning Herald.

One example that horrified many Fairfax journalists was ‘Battling Obesity’, a Sun Herald four page Special Feature on gastric banding written by eight journalists published on August 23, 2009. Sponsored by a company that dominates the gastric banding market in Australia, the report was presented as a feature on weight loss surgery. It had no disclaimer saying it was an advertising feature or an advertorial. View the Media Watch expose here.

It seems opposition to advertorial at the Sydney Morning Herald used to be stronger. In 2007 Herald journalists argued on the floor with then-editor Alan Oakley over his decision to run a wrap-around on the Singapore Airlines Boeing A380’s inaugural flight to Australia along with a liftout supplement inside the paper. The front page story was given editorial precedence over the death of the first SAS soldier in Afghanistan.

Annabel Crabb, who was until the end of November 2009 a senior political writer at the Herald and is now at the ABC, said it is up to journalists to uphold their principles.

“I think that what’s happening to the media at the moment is complicating that for everybody. I don’t hold it against the newspaper that it’s trying to find ways of continuing interest with advertisers. I just think that you have to stick by the golden rule, which is that you don’t ask news journalists to tailor what they write in the interest of an advertiser,” said Crabb.

Crabb wrote the front page piece for the Special Report on the Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas that ran on September 2, 2009.

While admitting the request came to her “from a different part of the editorial structure than usual”, Crabb defends the story.  She says she took it in her own direction, including criticisms of the Festival’s program.

“To be honest nothing about the request sort of raised my hackles in the sense that it was played as a ‘would you like to write something about this program? And you can just write whatever you want’,” she said.

“I mean I didn’t even really consider it, I mean I should have considered it more possibly. If I’d had any direction on how to write it I would have been very suspicious and would have exercised the option not to do it.”

After speaking with Crabb for this story, the ACIJ could not find any evidence of any editorial criticism Crabb told us she included in the Festival of Dangerous Ideas Special Report.

At the same time, Gerard Noonan noted that Special Features actually require the very skills that good journalists possess.

“I argue that it’s better that they are written by journalists rather than by people who are involved in public relations. So long as it’s understood that they are actually special features.”

But is it clear that these Specials are indeed paid for and profited by Fairfax clients? Why is advertorial not simply labeled as such?

It looks like promotional-style Special Reports will continue to be embedded in The Sydney Morning Herald.

As SMH Urban Affairs Editor Matthew Moore maintains, “We are a commercial organisation, we have to make money, in the same way as it frustrates me when there’s not enough room for the decent stories, lots of things are frustrating. It’s an imperfect business, journalism, and that’s one of the imperfections.”

Emma Kemp has recently completed a journalism degree at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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