News for sale? Former C-Ville publisher sparks media debate
For as long as businesses have bought ads in media outlets, the wall between journalists reporting the news and the companies who supply the revenue for their salaries has never been 100 percent impermeable. Even as far back as the 18th century, no less a personage than Ben Franklin was penning articles in America's first daily, the Philadelphia Gazette (his own newspaper), touting the joys of owning a wood-burning stove (his own invention).
But at a time when consumers have more sources for news than ever, and daily newspaper circulation is plummeting, Rob Jiranek, former C-Ville Weekly publisher and current VP of sales and strategic planning for the daily Memphis Commercial Appeal, decreed on September 25 that a new day had dawned.
"No longer are there thick, impenetrable walls between the newsroom, advertising, and circulation departments," he wrote in a company-wide memo. "Today, we are in it together in this new world of newspaper survival."
Jiranek's solution? A concept he called "monetization," which he defined as "match[ing] up specific kinds of content with specific kinds of advertising campaigns."
This meant that while no outside business would have editorial control over any article, specific stories would be assigned to reporters with the understanding that the stories had specific corporate sponsors. Despite a petition signed by 50 Commercial Appeal reporters, the effort went ahead, and on Sunday, October 14, the brave new world of "monetization" began.
The shift likely went unnoticed by most readers. The only sponsor-specific content in the paper was a real estate column called "Done Deals," which ran alongside the name and logo of Boyle Investment Company– a local development firm– and the words "sponsored by." However, that was enough to get the attention of John Branston, a senior editor with a weekly newspaper called the Memphis Flyer.
"I read the paper pretty closely," says Branston. "I didn't make much of it, but I figured the words 'sponsored by' next to a regular Sunday column of business briefs meant that there would be more to this than one story."
Sure enough, Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck, who co-wrote– or at least co-signed– Jiranek's memo, responded to an e-mail inquiry from Branston affirming that the sponsorship was part of a new strategy.
"The Commercial Appeal, like most newspapers these days, is looking for ways to monetize content," Peck wrote, introducing the newly coined m-word. "This is part of the new business model that will support journalism in the future. The Web is way ahead of newspapers on this. Online, many ads already are linked directly to particular content."
Branston dug deeper and found that the be-logoed article was but the tip of the monetization iceberg.
Sponsorships had been planned for everything from the paper's online police blotter, to its prep football scores, to coverage of the 50th anniversary of Memphis soul record label Stax. But what got the attention of media circles beyond the banks of the Mississippi was Branston's revelation that the Commercial Appeal had planned a series of articles about Memphis' place in the global economy that was to be sponsored by a Memphis company that does a hefty bit of business with the rest of the world: FedEx.
By October 18, the day after Branston's report came out and four days after the Commercial Appeal's first "monetized" news item, Peck came clean to trade publication Editor & Publisher. He admitted that an upcoming six-part November series, "Memphis and the World," was to bear FedEx's name and that FedEx would have been one of the subjects covered. But the sponsorship had fallen through after editors objected, he said.
"I went to our publisher and said we have probably gone half a step more than we should have gone on this project," Peck said in the E&P story. "It's treacherous ground when you start talking about having an advertiser in a section that has them in the reporting."
Hook editor Hawes Spencer, who worked alongside Jiranek for seven-and-a-half years as editor of C-Ville Weekly (which he also co-owned with Jiranek, and Bill Chapman, who remains co-owner), says he's surprised to hear of his former colleague's controversial tack.
"Jiranek never messed with me," he says. "I got to edit the paper as I saw fit, and there was no real initiative from the business side. We never clashed on editorial content."
Spencer admits, however, that even the Hook occasionally generates content based on its appeal to particular kinds of advertisers.
"I've never heard of affixing a sponsor to hard news stories," says Spencer, "but there's a little bit of a blur on these softer special sections and inserts. The stakes are so much lower in the special sections like our wedding insert, our homes insert, and others, but we still don't tailor the content. We still work for the reader."
According to Branston, no other explicitly sponsored content has run, the Commercial Appeal has not addressed the issue in its own pages, and neither Jiranek nor Peck returned the Hook's repeated calls for comment.
[Bill Chapman's title was misstated in the print version of this story; it has been corrected in this online edition–editor.]