>A correspondent asked me about a situation in which an editor said he would publish his story—without pay–if he found a sponsor to cover half the cost. Is this something he should consider? I told him to back away from this unethical editor. Freelancers should not pay a cent to have their stories published; the publishers should pay them.
There may be special types of publications where stories are done on some sort of co-op basis, but a reputable paper doesn’t do that. Times are tough, but not that tough.
I would admit that the line between editorial and advertising is fuzzier than it used to be. Look at all those “special sections” that seem to have articles about a particular business on one page and ads for that same business on the opposite page. It’s sleazy but profitable. Advertising definitely pays the bills, but should the freelance writer get involved in this? I don’t think so.
How do you feel about it? Has anyone else out there been asked to chip in or find a sponsor before a story would be accepted? If so, what did you do and how did it turn out?
>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.