Second Thought: Wednesday, February 23, 2005
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Second Thought

Print media are further blurring the line between advertising and editorial pages.

By TRACY EVERBACH

How desperate are DFW’s large newspapers to keep revenues flowing? At The Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the long-acknowledged separation between advertising and editorial content has begun to erode. Insidious ads have been creeping onto pages previously reserved exclusively for legitimate news — or at least for halfway decent feature stories.
On page one of the Startlegram, a clever little teaser reading “Featured Advertiser” appeared on recent Mondays at the bottom left of the page. Right below the index, a logo for a business called Cheaper than Dirt teased to a full-page ad in the sports section. Apparently the guardians of the First Amendment also are boosting the Second, because Cheaper than Dirt is a Fort Worth gun dealer featuring such necessary weapons as a rifle/bayonet (perfect for stabbing that home intruder if you miss the shot and fail to blow his head off). Also for sale is the AR-15 rifle, similar to M-16s soldiers used in the Vietnam War, which hunters presumably use to shoot dozens of bullets into one deer, or maybe a whole herd of deer.
When asked about this trigger-happy business move, the retail advertising manager of the Startlegram referred calls to executive editor Jim Witt, who had his assistant, D’Juana Gibson, call back and say, “We do not respond to requests from the Fort Worth Weekly.” An anonymous Startlegram staffer said Witt within the past couple of months issued a memo to newsroom employees about the page-one ads that essentially read, “as much as we hate to do this, it’s a stream of revenue.” Hmm ... the stream must be flooding. In January the Star-Telegram’s retail advertising revenue was up 5.1 percent, and owner Knight-Ridder’s total ad revenue increased 4.2 percent.
Fort Worth’s Knight-Ridder newspaper may be following the lead of larger newspaper chain Gannett, which more than five years ago told its papers — including the nation’s biggest, USA Today — that “tasteful” front-page ads were acceptable. The Dallas Morning News has followed suit, running ads on the bottom eighth of various section fronts; for example, a hospital ad on the Texas Living section front on Healthy Living day, a cruise ad on the Sunday Travel section front. Explained DMN advertising account executive Molly Whitehair: “It was just to give advertisers more of a chance to be exactly where they wanted to be.” The location requires “premium” pricing, she said, but she couldn’t specify what that is because different advertisers pay different rates. As long as we’re letting advertisers be exactly where they want to be, how about right below the masthead? Or maybe above it?
This month, the Denton Record-Chronicle, which, like the News, is owned by Belo Corp., placed stickers on page one, asking, “Who says you can’t advertise on the front page? Make your advertising stand out.” The yellow-and-black stickers were part of a test, said Jana Pitts, Record-Chronicle retail office coordinator. She didn’t know whether the Denton paper would actually start running front-page ads, though.
Most U.S. newspapers instituted ethical policies separating journalism and advertising in the 20th century so advertisers would not appear to dictate news content. But with the advent of the internet and web sites that display ads on almost every page — not to mention those maddening pop-ups — perhaps newspapers simply are straining to keep up with technology. We all know that advertising pays the media’s bills, but these kinds of tactics blur the lines between facts and ads and taint the concept of press independence. The public, in fact, is already highly confused, what with radio announcers reading the news one moment and hawking erectile dysfunction treatments the next, and the News’ disastrous but thankfully short-lived foray five years ago into part-ownership of the Mavericks basketball team that its sportswriters routinely covered.
The Big Two papers in Dallas-Fort Worth certainly aren’t as shameless, however, as Fort Worth, Texas magazine, which this month issued its ad-driven guide to area schools. Nearly every private school listed on a chart (with information on enrollment, tuition, and whether the school offers a choir program) bought an ad in the section. The magazine also published separate, glowing summaries of each school. These write-ups — which read like the public relations promotions they are — appeared in a “Special Advertising Section” but looked like editorial content. Only the first page of the shiny, 18-page schools section was labeled as advertising.
Another six-page “Special Advertising Section” in the magazine looked deceptively like a feature story on women lawyers. The glossy section included glamorous, full-page photos of well-dressed attorneys, but a closer look revealed the lawyers and their firms paid for this fashion-magazine farce.
The creeping influence of advertising onto front pages and other spaces where readers expect neutral, independent stories leads the public to think that media can be bought. And who says they can’t? After all, advertisers pay big bucks to plaster their names on sports arenas (see Ameriquest Field and the American Airlines Center). So what’s next — The Dallas Morning News, brought to you today by Bass Pro Shops? The Ford Trucks Star-Telegram? The Dickey’s Barbecue Pit Record-Chronicle? Laugh, but don’t dismiss the concept. Twenty years ago you probably wouldn’t have believed the Houston Astros would be playing at a field called Minute Maid Park.

Tracy Everbach is a journalism professor at the University of North Texas. She can be reached at TracyEverbach@hotmail.com.


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