âWe 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 hadnât told me. So thatâs where that obviously came from,â 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 TheSMH’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 didnât mindthe free publicity the article attracted, he did wonder what kind of article he was featured in.
Labeled a âStrategic Featureâ, was it advertising or was it editorial? Like most people not familiar with the Heraldâs corporate advertising lingo, he had no idea.
The Enretech article was part of a âSpecial Reportâ called “Selling Australia to the World” which ran in theHeraldâs 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, TheSydney 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 GMEâs International Manager Sean Griffin, who confirmed that the Herald had called him for an interview.
âIt 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 âdo you have anyone who might want to offer a few comments?ââ said Griffin, who is AIMEXâs Vice President.
The SMHâs 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 âadvertising featureâ seems to have softened.
Today, the Herald runs the following labels to mark advertorial content: âSpecial Reportâ, âSpecial Featureâ and âSpecial Advertising Featureâ.
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 journalistâs byline, they are far from it and many journalists are concerned about the ethical implications of this.
Hereâs how it works according to Business Development Manager of the Strategic Features division, Jacqueline Kaganov: a Special Report âis an expansion of one of the Heraldâs main topic areasâ 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.
âA strategic feature is an opportunity to utilise Fairfax journalists to create a tailored, editorially relevant environment which you can benefit from by advertising within,â and provides an âopportunity to exclusively own all advertising space within the reportâ, 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.
âNo one in journalism shies away the fact that advertising is a significant proportion â in fact in most newspapers in Australia — itâs about 80 per cent of revenue,â he said. âI 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.â
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 AffairsEditor Matthew Moore said unclear labeling is a major problem with the paperâs Special Reports.
âI think the big issues weâve had in the past has been when they havenât been properly labeled and identified,â said Moore. âTheyâve got to be identified, theyâve got to be labeled, because otherwise itâs deceptive. Thatâs the test, is whether youâre 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.â
Then-SMH Environment Editor Marian Wilkinson expressed similar feelings when we spoke to her while still at the paper.
âIf itâs presented as an advertising supplement and itâs clearly marked that itâs advertorial copy, I think thatâs OK. If itâs not, if itâs set out in a way where itâs trying to pretend to be editorial copy, then I think that is a really bad move.â
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 âSpecial Reportâ 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 clientâs 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 ministryâs Partnership Prospectus report stated that âall Partners will be recognised in a special feature in the Sydney Morning Herald following the Award Ceremonyâ.
The SMH acknowledged the NSW Export Awardsâ sponsors Austrade and the NSW Department of Industry and Investment, which were both mentioned and had representatives quoted extensively in its âSelling Australia to the Worldâ Special Report.
One of the awardsâ 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 teamâs presentation.
Moore also noted that resourcing is an issue when journalists are taken from their usual work and asked to write a Special Report. âI donât 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,â 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 ârealâ 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 âNoâ doesnât 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 âBattling Obesityâ, 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 A380âs 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.
âI think that whatâs happening to the media at the moment is complicating that for everybody. I donât hold it against the newspaper that itâs 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 donât ask news journalists to tailor what they write in the interest of an advertiser,â said Crabb.
Crabb wrote the front page piece for the Special Report on the Sydney Opera Houseâs Festival of Dangerous Ideas that ran on September 2, 2009.
While admitting the request came to her âfrom a different part of the editorial structure than usualâ, Crabb defends the story.Â She says she took it in her own direction, including criticisms of the Festivalâs program.
âTo be honest nothing about the request sort of raised my hackles in the sense that it was played as a âwould you like to write something about this program? And you can just write whatever you wantâ,â she said.
âI mean I didnât even really consider it, I mean I should have considered it more possibly. If Iâd had any direction on how to write it I would have been very suspicious and would have exercised the option not to do it.â
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.
âI argue that itâs better that they are written by journalists rather than by people who are involved in public relations. So long as itâs understood that they are actually special features.â
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 TheSydney Morning Herald.
As SMH Urban Affairs Editor Matthew Moore maintains, âWe are a commercial organisation, we have to make money, in the same way as it frustrates me when thereâs not enough room for the decent stories, lots of things are frustrating. Itâs an imperfect business, journalism, and thatâs one of the imperfections.â
Emma Kemp has recently completed a journalism degree at the University of Technology, Sydney.