Edvertisements and Advertorials

Last week I described an unpleasant incident at the Sun-Times. The executive and financial editors got into it over a survey of holiday retailing that had been yanked from the front page and shortened because a retailer mentioned in the story wasn’t a Sun-Times advertiser.

The financial editor argued that this action crossed the line separating news from commerce. I agree with him; it did. But where is that line? The newsroom and the ad department are commonly described as the two hands of a newspaper, neither of which ought to know what the other’s doing. But another way of putting it is that the newsroom’s the soul and the ad department, for better or worse, pumps the blood. Medieval scholastics made meticulous calculations of how much the human soul weighed after the heart stopped. It didn’t amount to much.

Larry Green, the Sun-Times’s executive editor, spent a few years in the ad department before returning to the newsroom. He understands–to a fault, it appears–the sensitivities of the salesmen. Green’s experience is uncommon, but there’s nothing unusual about editorial decisions that take advertising into account. Whole sections of our daily papers–homes, autos, real estate, Sunday magazines–expand or shrink, live or die, in accordance with the ads they bring in. As editors perform these calibrations, their papers’ ethics can teeter on the brink.

Consider the following solicitation. A Web surfer came across it on the home page of the Daily Herald and left it on my desk.

“Imagine a special newspaper section tailored to exceed your advertising goals while providing readers with unique stories and photos. On March 10, 1997, the Daily Herald will publish EXTREMES!-DuPage ’97, an exciting keepsake section that follows in the rich and value-added tradition of our previous award-winning editions.”

The next sentence was underlined in red ink by my informant. “Our writing staff can complement your advertising message with a professionally written story about your business and/or products. It’s an available service designed especially for you.”

On its face, this offer is disgraceful. Fortunately, there’s less to it than meets the eye. That “writing staff” poised to stroke an advertiser with a “professionally written story” isn’t the newsroom. It’s a freelancer. And if the typography of “DuPage ’96” is any indication, the edition’s actual news stories–written by reporters–and what Du Page editor Jim Davis calls its “advertorials” will be hard to confuse.

Actually the shopkeeper may have more of a right than the reporter to object to the Daily Herald’s pitch–buy an ad and we’ll write a feature story about you. Like most pitches, this one’s a little too good to be true. But the shopkeeper will get his or her money’s worth regardless: the story of the shop placed in highly congenial company.

For example, last year one staff-written article explored the “unique crafts” being made and sold by the county’s senior citizens. “There’s the gift shop at Mayslake Village, a retirement center in Oak Brook. It harbors such treasures as baby sweaters and bonnets for $15, full-size afghans for $25 and a crocheted baby’s jacket for $8…”

Alongside this article was a two-column advertorial saying this: “The big fun comes each fall when Berco’s barnyard opens at the end of September. Carnival rides, pony rides, hay rides, haunted house, farm and exotic petting zoo, are just some of the festivities.”

It’s hard to say which language is more enthusiastic.

“DuPage ’97” is what Davis calls a “progress edition”–and he’s proud of the creativity he’s brought to the Daily Herald’s editions in the 90s. In ’95 the theme was “A day in the life of DuPage,” in ’96, “Off the beaten path.” Davis said this year’s theme, “Extremes,” will look at “anything and everything from the frivolous to the most serious. Who’s the youngest home owner? What’s the worst intersection? Highest and lowest. Least and most.” He went on, “I don’t know what the advertorial is, nor do I want to. I agree with you that a lot of progress editions do blur the line. But a good editorial product can sell advertising, and you don’t have to toady to your advertisers.”

A newspaper is a complex, messy operation, and the assumptions readers bring to page one probably would never occur to them as they thumb through a “DuPage ’97.” If necessary advertisers should be defied on the front page, and they should never be toadied to anywhere. But the point of a progress edition is to draw them in. “Certainly part of the reason newspapers do sections like this is with an expectation that we’re going to raise some revenue,” said managing editor John Lampinen. “Part of it is we have an opportunity to attract advertisers who might not at other times try the Herald. And we have an editorial interest in trying to present a story about Du Page County we might not otherwise present. From an editorial standpoint this is probably not the area where we’re going to be breaking a hard-edged investigative thing–I’m not going to kid you about that. But we do intend to maintain the journalistic integrity of the section.”

Which, under the circumstances, is what? I asked Lampinen.

“To try to create an editorial product that would stand apart from the advertising,” he said. “If it was just totally editorial it would stand by itself. And I think it would. We’re not doing stories in the section that are required of us by the advertising department. We’re open to listening as advertising sales reps come in and pitch stories to us, but there’s no requirement that we’ll follow up on one of those ideas. And for the most part, the editorial end of that section is conceived by Jim Davis and his staff. They take a really enterprising approach to writing an interesting section.”

A successful progress edition doesn’t go out with tomorrow’s trash. It stays around for a while, possibly winds up in the attic, might even get mailed to a prodigal son overseas. In its way, it’s purposeful. And everything in it, the stories and the ads, together celebrates home. “DuPage ’97” is ethically awkward journalism, but it doesn’t cross the line.

Copier Jam

The New Yorker just published an essay by James Kincaid offering a modestly contrarian view of plagiarism. Kincaid suggests there’s some sort of common urtext from which writers draw their prose, so little of the copping writers do deserves to be condemned as intellectual theft. He gallantly extends the realm of “nonfelonious copying” to include just about everything journalists do, since journalism is so often “a series of artful textual variations on stories with no clear point of origin–stories employing language that is boilerplate anyway.”

“Boilerplate” is a fighting word to journalists, and plagiarism is the sin of sins. But reading Kincaid, I realized that part of me agreed with him. I’d been tried and tested several months ago, and had decided then that some so-called plagiarism doesn’t merit comment.

First I’d received an unsigned letter containing a recent article by a Sun-Times beat writer, plus the corresponding Tribune coverage that had appeared a day or two earlier. There was no doubt about it–the Sun-Times writer obviously wrote his piece with the Tribune article lying beside his keyboard. He’d been lazy, he’d poached, he’d done wrong.

While I was deciding what to do about that, a Sun-Times informant called. One of the paper’s beat writers had just been ripped off by the Tribune. Would I be interested in seeing both stories and drawing my own conclusions? They were messengered over. Again the evidence of copying was indisputable.

Kincaid is a little too blithe about his subject to worry much about trust, which is what’s at stake when a reporter doesn’t do his own homework. On this occasion I knew both reporters well enough to trust them. One, to be honest, was a friend. Their stumbles looked like aberrations: in each case a competing reporter had broken the story first, and his guilty counterpart–buckling down to the most joyless drudgery in journalism, recovering a story you got scooped on–hadn’t tried hard enough to make the recovery look original. I remembered my tawdry old UPI job in another city: coming into the bureau at dawn and rewriting the morning paper’s top local stories for the radio wire. (Independent reporting and fresh phrases weren’t considerations–I was on deadline and half asleep.) And I decided that an accusation of plagiarism required a moral absolutism I couldn’t bring just then to the subject. So the papers could protest to each other if they wanted to: I wasn’t going to carry their water.

Readers who overestimate the natural level of originality in journalism are quickest to suspect plagiarism when it’s at a conspicuously low ebb. I just heard from a reader who’d noticed a singular image echoing through recent sports pages.

Barry Jacobs writing in the New York Times, January 7: “‘I was intimidated by going in there,’ [Willie Green] said. ‘You look around and you see all those great names, Vince Lombardi and all those guys. Then you see the fans, the fans can scare you too if you don’t watch it. You go on out there and go, “God, it’s cold out here,” and then you see some guy with his shirt off.'”

Joe Knowles, writing in the Chicago Tribune, January 8: “‘You get off the plane and you feel the cold wind,’ Green said. ‘You walk out of the hotel and you feel the cold wind. You put on as much as you can in the locker room and you walk out on the field, and you still feel it. And then you look up in the stands and the first thing you see is some guy without a shirt.'”

Jay Mariotti, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, January 10: “Also worried is receiver Willie Green, who used to come here with the Lions and recalled: ‘You get off the plane and feel the cold wind. You walk out of the hotel and feel the cold wind. You put on as much as you can in the locker room, you walk out on the field and you still feel it. And then you look up in the stands and the first thing you see is some guy without a shirt.'”

Plagiarism? No. More like Hamburger Helper–what readers have to chew on when too little news picked over by too many writers has to last for too many days. “Did I speak to Willie Green directly? No,” says Mariotti. “Did the Tribune? No. I remember seeing that in a wire-service story I saved in my computer. It happened to fit the spot where I was writing. My feelings are that if it’s something exclusive to a particular newspaper, credit them. But that was not exclusive to any of them. And it wasn’t exactly a quote that broke any great ground about the world. I would hate it if somebody would think I was ethically wrong about this.”

Knowles also picked up the quote from the AP. Nothing unusual about that–AP yeomen don’t expect to be recognized. Jacobs, a freelancer, provided the New York Times with a somewhat different version of Green’s remarks–but then Jacobs actually was there with a tape recorder when Green did his talking.

News Bites

• While John Lampinen and I were talking, I recalled the stand he took last summer with Richard Jewell. The Daily Herald was possibly the only daily paper in the country where propriety overcame pandemonium and held Jewell’s name out of print the day he was identified as the suspect in the Olympics bombing. “Can you imagine what it would be like to be Richard Jewell this morning if you are innocent?” Lampinen told his staff in a memo.

But when I asked if he enjoyed his vindication, Lampinen gloomily changed the subject to Michael Irvin. How did you play that story? I asked.

“We put it on the front of sports and referred to it on the front page. We did it almost reflexively,” Lampinen said. “It wasn’t until the next day driving to work that I thought–what if Michael Irvin is innocent? The red flag should have gone up. How could somebody be so stupid as to cash in his career this way?”

But Irvin, Lampinen acknowledged, was “a far more complicated case than Richard Jewell.” He was a celebrity with a criminal past, and the Cowboys were about to meet Carolina in the NFL playoffs. How could you report that there’s a Cowboy star who might have to sit out the big game and not say who and why?

Journalism has become unsurpassed at wringing its hands in shame. After Irvin and teammate Erik Williams were cleared, the Tribune produced an editorial lamenting that the Richard Jewell lesson “was soon forgotten.” Alas, “some journalists were quick to think the worst” of the two Dallas players–though others, “to their credit…urged against a rush to judgment.”

The Tribune’s own coverage, if you’re curious, ran on page one of the sports section three days straight, with accusations reported, names named, and loads of pictures (four of Irvin, three of Williams). But the closest anyone came to thinking the worst was Ed Sherman’s one-liner in Hit & Run. “GoodMorning, Jerry Jones,” he wrote. “Change your slogan from America’s Team to Stateville’s Team.”

• In late 1995 the public library produced a $12.95 “Chicago Historical Engagement Calendar 1996” strewn with errors. Ridiculed by gadfly Richard Bjorklund as a “moral outrage” and defended by the librarians who prepared it as “a labor of love,” the calendar was a regrettable first time out for a good idea mistakenly developed without an outside editor. “There will be other calendars,” said library commissioner Mary Dempsey.

Not yet. There’s no 1997 historical calendar, accurate or otherwise. A spokesman said the library’s working on one for its 125th anniversary next year.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): John Lampinem phoot by Nathan Mandel.