Monday, January 18, 2010

Red Flag at The Oregonian

When a newspaper publisher is compelled to explain an advertisement to readers, it should serve as a red flag that something is wrong.

In yesterday’s Oregonian, publisher Chris Anderson explained why the paper had sold space on a front-page wrapper (called a “spadea”) to a political campaign, in this case to the anti-measure 66 and 67 campaign. The ad was larded with quotes from a supportive Oregonian editorial.

A truncated version of his "To our readers" column appears HERE, along with more than 100 reader comments.

The whole "spadea" device is intrusive — by design. And, yes, I know that newspapers are in crisis and desperately need the kind of revenue this sort of sleight-of-hand advertising can produce.

Long-term, these slippery devices may simply hasten the exodus of readers. It makes matters worse when they effectively turn over the public face of The Oregonian to political advertising. Worse still, the advertising's content is the product of the Oregonian's own editorial board.

Sure, the top of the ad says "paid advertisement," but readers are utterly confused by what is and is not advertising, thanks in large measure to newspapers' blurring the lines. Take the Saturday "Autos" section, whose scant editorial content is pure puffery that leads into a section that is a blatant a vehicle for car dealer ads.

Given the spadia's appearance, content and placement, the "paid advertising" label might lead readers to assume that the ad was paid for by The Oregonian itself.

Anderson's anticipation of concerns like mine is no doubt why he felt compelled to write his "To our readers" column. If so, he failed to allay those concerns and simply alerted us to his need to try to write his way out of a deeply flawed editorial decision.

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