The Comox Valley Record, our local newspaper, drew widespread criticism last week by turning over its Dec. 12th front page to an advertisement that looked like a news story. The “advertorial” was sponsored by a development company at war with some residents and the Comox Valley Regional District.

But it wasn’t the newspaper’s real front page. It was what the industry calls a “wrap” — an advertisement that mimics the look of an actual front page, but is, in fact, a fake front page. The special outrage in the case was caused by the paper’s failure to label it as advertising.

In response, people have left a long thread of mostly angry comments on the Record’s Facebook page, where publisher Keith Currie apologized for “inadvertently” failing to include “identifying markers, making it easily recognizable to the reader as an advertisement, and not editorially-produced journalism.”

Most people aren’t buying his mea culpa.

Reading the paper’s Facebook page thread, it’s obvious that people believe the newspaper intentionally left off a typographical element that would have identified the two-page groan by a Fanny Bay company, 3L Developments, which is frustrated that it can’t bend the will of the CVRD planning department.

Angry readers seem to think the developer flashed his cash so the publisher and advertising manager would look the other way when the page went to press without a prominent disclaimer identifying it as an ad, not a news story.

It’s a believable theory, but a hard one to prove.

As someone who has spent 50+ years in the newspaper business, I can assure you that advertisers sometimes do pressure advertising sales representatives to omit disclaimers. I can also verify that all newspaper employees know — or should know — the absolute rule that requires paid content to be clearly identified as such.

That said, humans make errors, and this could have been one.

But the problem in this case is that the focus on an omission of a disclaimer misses the most troubling aspect of this fiasco.

The more serious error committed by the Record was that it published the advertorial on its fake front page at all.

In the long, slow decline of printed newspapers, the search for new sources of advertising revenue has led to the selling of its most precious real estate: the front page. It started with banner ads across the bottom and small ads at the top.

The selling of the front page has escalated into fake front page wraps. These are usually recognizable advertisements for retail businesses. They’re ads just like the ones inside the newspaper. But for a higher price, the newspaper will put them on a false front.

Even such esteemed newspapers as The Los Angeles Times do it.

The 3L Developments fake page falls into a different category, however, because it mimics a news story. Whether to publish it on the cover of the newspaper should have included ethical considerations — and rejection.  

Why? The 3L Developments advertisement bemoans its plan to develop 495 acres along the Brown and Puntledge rivers, including the popular Stotan Falls. The controversial project has already triggered several legal actions.

And the content of the advertorial includes disparaging remarks about the actions of an elected official and an unverified quote from a CVRD staff member.

By placing the advertorial on a fake front page, The Record unfortunately gave the impression that 3L Developments’ version of the situation was factual, without the scrutiny that a legitimate news gathering organization would require.

3L Developments may be able to support every word in its advertorial. That isn’t the point. Although, there’s no indication so far that the Record conducted any independent fact-checking.

Knowing the topic is so controversial and legally complex, the Record committed a serious error in judgment by giving the advertorial such prominent placement.

The omission of some words identifying the article as paid advertising content is trivial by comparison.

But before we’re done roasting the Record or any other publication that publishes advertorials on fake front pages or elsewhere, let’s take a moment to reflect on the slow breaking down of the historical wall between advertising and news.

Have you opened a web page recently and seen a fake news (aka “sponsored content”) post like this: “How I made $2,000 a week working from my Comox Valley home!” Or, “How I achieved financial freedom working just four hours per week?”

These are just the reinvention of print newspaper and magazine ads that, for example, tout formulas for losing weight without diet or exercise, or how people can improve their eyesight to see in the dark.

Presenting advertising in a quasi-news format has made the wall between actual journalism and paid content so paper thin that it is almost invisible to the unwary reader. And that only benefits advertisers.

Marketers have discovered that inserting paid content that looks like news next to real journalism can boost the credibility of their products.

It does something else, too: it drags everybody down. Most people aren’t completely fooled by the paid content, but the work of serious journalists gets tainted by association.

The editors who mentored me in my early journalism career pounded home the notion that acting ethically was just as important as how many words per minute I could type.

In a world where the term “fake news” gets thrown around indiscriminately, some people no longer feel bound to think and act ethically. Sadly, that’s going to sully real journalism for everybody else.

 

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