For a price, anybody can buy space in a newspaper to announce pretty much whatever they want. Selling a boat? Buy an ad. Want to wish your gerbil a happy birthday? Buy an ad. Lost an heirloom and desperately want it back? Buy an ad.
It’s a mix of advertising and circulation that keep the lights on in any newsroom. About 15 years ago, about three-quarters of the New York Times’ revenue stream came from advertising but the advent of the Internet has re-calibrated this share down to about a 50-50 split, according to Atlantic magazine (“The print apocalypse and how to survive it,” Nov. 3, 2016).
It seems at first glance counter-intuitive that a free press would fund itself through advertising, which are essentially curated messages intended to persuade people. This is why newsrooms have a policy of separating advertising from editorial. For example, it would be unethical for a newspaper to promise good press — or any press at all — in turn for buying an ad.
It would also be unethical for a newspaper to promise placement of ad in the vicinity of related news content. In fact, editors avoid this at all costs. There have been times where, at the end of the day, I’ve realized a story about an upcoming event happens to lie on the same page as an ad for that event. In this case, I am obligated to move the story to a different page because if I didn’t, it would create the appearance that Yellowknifer is using news coverage to promote advertising.
Editorial staff also don’t base news value on who is or isn’t buying ads. For example, if the organizers of a public event decline to buy an ad in the newspaper, this decision will not factor into whether or not a reporter writes a story about the fact the event is happening. Rather, journalists simply ask themselves whether it’s in the public interest to write about an event.
Advertisers also do not have any control over what appears on a publication’s news or opinion pages. People who buy ads with Yellowknifer may not agree with the content of an editorial or column but have no more sway than a person who doesn’t buy an ad in the paper.
Sometimes people will take their advertising dollars elsewhere because they disagree with what is written on editorial pages. They are completely free to do so. Other times, they will write a letter to the editor or guest column. Personally, I love this because not only do submitted letters open the newspaper’s editorial decisions to debate, it exposes readers to perspectives they might not see otherwise. Bolstering a newspaper with differing opinions is more beneficial to the community than attempting to contribute to its demise over a difference of opinion.
That said, editorial staff will not put any special weight on whether the person writing is an advertiser or not. Yellowknifer will print any submission as long as it’s relevant, appropriate and not defamatory.
There are some cases where reporters will use advertisements as a way to create news content. Say the government is holding consultations on legislation, and advertises those consultations in the newspaper. This might inspire a reporter to do a story about what these consultations are about and how people might be affected by the new legislation.
Another example of this appeared in the July 21 Yellowknifer, which screamed a huge headline “Blowout sale” on the front page about De Beers’ Snap Lake Diamond Mine auction. It’s not every day a diamond mine is dismantled and sold off in an international auction and on that merit alone, the paper’s editorial staff felt a great interest to Yellowknifer readers.
And then there are advertorials. One way some publications have found success in bolstering their advertising revenue streams is by creating a new form of journalism that straddles the line between advertising and news. Basically, an advertorial, sponsored content or native advertising is when a publication prints an ad that looks like a news story. The only thing that separates this from actual news content is it will be labelled as such, which is something readers should keep an eye out for when consuming news.
Because advertising and editorial content is produced under one roof, readers may not realize newsrooms draw an invisible line and keep on either side of it but that line is there and it’s part of what preserves any publication’s press freedom.