The wall between editorial and advertising is crumbling

Have you ever been reading a magazine article about a travel destination and then noticed right across the page an advertisement for a restaurant or shop mentioned in that article? Coincidence? Not at all. Once upon a time, when the Internet was only an engineer’s dream, there seemed to be an impermeable wall between editorial and advertising in newspapers and magazines. Not only did editorial and advertising staff work in different parts of the building, but the work they produced had nothing to do with each other. If somebody wanted to advertise, they should pay for it, we said.

How many times as a reporter and editor did I tell people I didn’t care who did or did not buy ads; we would print the news and features we wanted to print. I was naive, of course. There have always been unwritten rules about offending advertisers. If the Ford dealership purchased a full-page ad in every issue, we were not going to publish a negative story about the Ford dealership. If the manager of the Ford dealership called the editor looking for an article about some new service or charity event, a story would be written and published. After all, those ads were paying the bills. But it was subtle.

Also subtle were the so-called “guides” we published in a magazine I once edited. Still naive,  I was appalled to learn that the only companies listed in the monthly gift, restaurant, honeymoon destination or preschool guides were the ones that bought ads in the magazine. As a reader, I might figure this was a complete and unbiased list I could use to make decisions, but no. In fact, my job – which I didn’t keep for long – required me to get the wording for every listing approved by the companies featured. It was sheer advertising disguised as editorial.

There’s even a type of article called advertorial. I used to write those for the local daily. The pay, which came from the advertising department, was great. Most of the articles went into special sections on topics like weddings or home improvement. Lots of ads, lots of related stories mentioning lots of advertisers. I was lucky to have a good editor who insisted on real, well-researched articles, but still, it was advertising.

The wall between the two has gotten so  transparent it’s more like a chain-link fence with big holes. Many magazine articles are nothing but thinly veiled advertising. The same applies on the Internet. We are bombarded with advertising not only in the editorial content but in the ads that pop up right over the top of the content we thought we wanted to read. And have you noticed when you Google something, that you start getting ads about whatever you were searching for?

I still believe editorial and advertising should be separate. As a reader, please be aware that what you read may be influenced by advertising. As a writer, do your own research. Don’t accept whatever you see in print or online as fact. Please try to write your own truth without worrying about selling a product.

How do you feel about all of this? Have you experienced a crossover between editorial  and advertising? Does it matter?

Now go write–and don’t worry about money.

>Advertorial–one of those things we don’t talk about much

>Show of hands: how many of you know what advertorial is? Two? Good for you. For the rest, let’s talk. Advertorial is a blend of advertising and editorial. It’s articles printed on paid advertising pages that often look like any other article, but somehow support products or businesses. Sometimes they’re printed in a different typeface or in a separate section from the regular editorial copy. Often the word “advertising” appears in small print at the top or the bottom of the page. However, most readers who have not been schooled in the newspaper business really can’t tell the difference between editorial and advertising, and when you put the two together . . . well, it’s hard to tell.

Let me be straight with you. For several years, I wrote advertorial pieces for the San Jose Mercury News. Because they were assigned by the advertising department, they paid far more money than the editorial sections. I’m talking $600 instead of $100 for the same length article. I was blessed with an advertising department editor who let me have free reign with my stories. His assignments may have been directly linked to ads in the section, but I wrote those stories the same as any others, and they were printed virtually unedited. I wrote many wedding articles–how to pick out a tuxedo, buy flowers, choose musicians, etc. I also interviewed the chefs of many of the area’s most pricey restaurants–and yes, I got some free meals. For a section on senior health, I interviewed three very old but active divers. I also did stories on lighting and interior design, and I interviewed the winners of the annual “Design an Ad” contest. These stories were fun and paid well. Should I be ashamed that they ran in special advertising sections? I don’t think so, but I’d love to hear your opinion.

These sections still exist in many papers, and in some of them all of the articles are written by the same person. That’s a lot of freelance money. To get in, look for the sections, find the name of the supervising editor, and send him or her your resume, some clips, and a cover letter expressing your desire to write for them.

Now, for those purists who don’t want to sully their hands with advertising, let’s be honest. These days, advertising is everywhere in everything. Maybe the hard news sections are not influenced by ads; maybe they are. But the feature sections definitely have a connection. How often have you read an article about a product, a business, or a community event and noticed that there happened to be related ads right there on the same page or not far away? No connection? Get real. On the last paper I worked, when the Ford dealer wanted to promote something, I had to get over there and do the article, even though it wasn’t much of a story. They hired a new salesman. Whoopee. Why write about it? Because Ford bought full-page ads in every issue. Likewise for the major grocery stores. If they had some kind of prize giveaway, I had to go shoot a picture of the winner. One store did it every month and expected a photo in the paper every month. Did we ever write anything negative about these companies? Not really. Their lack of standards was one of several reasons that I quit that job, but every paper is influenced by advertising in some way.

The boundary between editorial and advertising is getting very fuzzy in all media. Movie producers now list products in the credits and get extra money for using those products in their films. TV shows also feature products–notice the giant Coca-Cola glasses used by the judges on American Idol–because they know we fast-forward through the actual commercials.

I don’t think you can completely avoid advertising in newspapers these days. Ads pay the bills. But if you don’t mind a little commercialism, consider writing advertorial copy. Then it can pay your bills.

Heresy? No, I’m just being realistic. Look more carefully at the newspapers you read and see if you can find the advertising connections. I think the only place you’re going to find no advertising connection is in literary magazines, but even some of those are littered with ads for MFA programs, editing services, books to buy, etc. The ones that don’t run ads are fighting like crazy to survive.

For a little more on the subject, visit the Wisegeek site to read their article on advertorials. Check out their last sentence and tell me what you think.

>My challenge results

>I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I didn’t try it, so I analyzed two daily newspapers for freelance opportunities. Why two? The first one didn’t offer much hope. Here’s what I got:

The Register-Guard, Eugene, OR–medium-sized town and paper:
Sunday paper uses a little staff writing and a lot of wire service copy. Some of those wire stories are freelance but written for the Washington Post, AP or the New York Times. The only real freelance piece was a guest editorial about Iraqi refugees written by someone with experience in the subject. There was also an op-ed by Garrison Keillor, but he’s famous, so does that count? I’m sure the same piece must have been syndicated nationwide. So the Register-Guard is not a very good market for freelancers.

The Oregonian, Portland, OR–This is our big-city daily, which always annoys me because it ignores the coast, where I live. Its world revolves around Portland. However, it does have one freelance correspondent who covers something like three counties. She didn’t have anything in this issue, so no coasties. Here’s where I found freelance:

Opinion: The cover story on study-abroad courses was written by an Oregon State professor. I don’t know whether she got paid or not.
This section also has something called “Short Takes,” opinions written in 35 or fewer clever words, definitely unpaid.
I also found an op-ed piece by a University of Oregon law professor on recent Supreme Court rulings. Probably unpaid.
There was an interesting invitation on the front page of the Opinion section inviting writers to submit resumes and samples and become part of a select group to do a series of pieces. They would not be paid, but I’m going to apply. The exposure and clips would be fabulous.
Parade: This magazine is inserted in lots of Sunday papers. The articles are freelance or syndicated, but this is a tough market to crack. Try it if you dare and remember the stories need to have national interest.
Homes and Rentals: Yeah, I know zzzz, but lead story about condo developments with great views was freelance. The rest was syndicated.
Travel: This section sometimes has a lot of freelance, but this week, it was limited to the second story on page one, an essay about the memories souvenirs hold for the writer. Wish I’d thought of that.
“O”–Life, Arts, Books: One weekly freelance column by the delightful Chelsea Cain
The real opportunities are in book reviews. Four freelancers, two of them regulars, did six reviews in this section. The section also publishes one short freelance poem every Sunday.
Advertorial: These are special sections, sponsored by the advertising department. I can tell you from experience that they might be slightly sleazy but you can make big bucks and do a lot of fun stories, so don’t dismiss them. Once you get on their list, these can bring steady work. This Sunday has two such sections, one a guide to an upcoming home and remodeling show with five features by “special writer” Jan Behrs and two staff-written articles. The other section, “Learn On! A Guide to Higher Ed 2007,” includes five freelance pieces by Stephen Teater.

The Oregonian also publishes a big arts and entertainent section full of freelance reviews and features on Fridays and it has weekly neighborhood sections with lots of freelance for areas around Portland, but that’s not part of this study.

So that’s my report. What did you find?