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Sun/Province: a loss of trust

Trust. It’s a small word, but it represents a very big concept: perhaps one of the most powerful positive characteristics we allow in our personal or business relationships.

And, apart from perhaps the medical profession, there may be no business that DEPENDS more on the trust of its customers than the news business, especially newspapers, which depend solely on the written word and not sound or pictures to tell/back up their stories.

For longer than I care to admit, I have been a paying subscriber to The Vancouver Sun (where I also worked for eight years) and The Province, devouring both each morning along with my breakfast.  And through their various manifestations  and changes, layoff and buyouts, I have remained a loyal paying reader.

But The Vancouver Sun and The Province have now lost my trust.

Readers of this blog will recall a piece I did on Sept. 4th  “Sun/Province: Real Stories or Paid-For Propaganda?” expressing concern about news stories in the two papers that looked like advertorials, but were not identified as such in any way.

On Saturday Aug. 28 on page A-16 in The Vancouver Sun there were two captivating stories on PVR TV technology: the first,  topped by a full page headline entitled “A new revolution in home entertainment”; and,  the second, a piece entitled “Impact of PVRs on commercial TV expected to grow as time-shifting increases”. Filling out the page… a large ad for Telus’s PVR services.

There was nothing to indicate the stories, written by a Terrence Belford (apparently a freelancer)  “For Postmedia News”, were part of an “advertorial” or “Special advertising feature” etc.  The ad and the stories side by side  looked like just a coincidence or even very clever legitimate page makeup.

But  the next day, there in The Province,on page A-25, were the same two articles, written by the same reporter from Postmedia News, one now titled “Rising tide of PVRs to transform TV” and the other headlined, “They’ll put power in hands of viewers, says media prof”.  And right next to them? The very same Telus PVR ad that had been next to the same two stories in The Sun.

Again, no indication there was ANY connection at all between the stories and the ads.  But it looked suspicious to me ..especially since they were both in “A” Section of the newspapers…which I had always regarded as the almost “holy” refuge of legitimate news and editorial content.  (Leave the advertorials for the Homes, Cars or other Sections deeper in the paper.)

So I wrote to Sun Editor-in-Chief Patricia Graham and Province Editor-in-Chief Wayne Moriarty asking whether there was a link between the stories and the ads?  Graham’s office replied she was too busy “all week” to reply; Moriarty contacted me by phone the following week and said “he’d look into it”.

After a little more prodding, Graham did reply Sept 16:

“Our policy is to label advertorial content. I’m sure you’ve seen some of these labels in the past couple of weeks. We’ve been labelling for years and continue to do it. If you don’t see a label, you can safely assume it’s editorial.

“Very occasionally mistakes are made; it’s a fast-paced business, and human beings make mistakes,” she added

 ”This newsroom is made up of excellent journalists committed to serving the public. We maintain high standards and care deeply about journalism. We work hard at our journalism and hard at maintaining the integrity of  The Vancouver Sun. We don’t pretend paid content is editorial.”

Great!  So maybe it WAS a coincidence that both papers just happened to run the same articles next to the same Telus ad.  Or maybe an honest mistake.  Great.

I even allowed her explanation to satisfy my curiosity about a very flattering Sept. 11 Weekend Extra piece by Sun reporter Elliott Pap entitled, “One Giant leap for Vancouver hockey fans”  … just above five-column ad for Vancouver Giants Season Tickets.   Just a coincidence, or clever ad placement, but not,  I accepted, not an unidentified advertorial.

And then I saw the Sept 16 Sun; the same day Graham wrote me.  On Page C-10  (at least it was not the “A” section!) there were more articles I found very “curious”. 

“Are you ready to cut the cords?,” asked a piece by Steve Makris  (NOT a Sun reporter as far as I can tell); and then down the side of the page, another article by Makris:  “A World of choice: Smartphones come with a dizzying array of options”.  Lucky guy, he's not a staff reporter, but he gets two of his articles published in a large daily like The Sun in one day.  And right beside the stories--guess!--a HUGE ad for Cellcom, “Canada’s largest Rogers authorized cell phone dealer”.

In tiny print, below both stories were what I have now come to view as ominous words: “For Postmedia News”.  Ah. So Mr. Makris may not even be a staff employee of the Sun’s new parent company, Postmedia News.  Maybe just a hired “writer” or very lucky freelancer?  Again, not a word anywhere telling readers the stories were any part of an advertorial or special advertising feature page or that, the stories and ad, published on the same page, were in any way related to one another.

I just don’t believe it. Not a good reaction a newspaper should desire from a paying subscriber.

And there was more.

Take the same day’s paper, the very next page, C-11, and believe it or not, ANOTHER wonderful article “Smartphones benefit from ‘apptastic’ programs” … not by Makris (give the guy some  rest!) , but by Marc Saltzman … also “For Postmedia News” and right next to it,  a very large Telus ad for Smartphones!

Of course, Messrs Makris and Saltzman may not have had an inkling that their articles would be associated so closely with ads for the products they were writing about. It’s not their highly positive reviews that most raise my suspicions: it’s the placement of these stories right next to the large ads that makes me wonder if those stories have any relationship, beyond coincidence, to those ads. 

Maybe it’s all part of some kind of new journalism: stories complementing the ads beside them.  But I certainly have never noticed it before, unless some relationship between the two was indentifed.

You decide for yourself,  but I just can’t believe it’s all just a coincidence or clever copy/ad placement. 

And when both The Sun and The Province publish the very same articles next to the very same ad, alarm bells go off for me.   

I have not canceled my subscription; The Sun still has some very good reporters; several are nominated for this year’s Webster Awards.  But I now find myself looking up and down, all around the page whenever I see a “story” on anything corporate or consumer-orientated. Is it real or just complementary to some nearby ad?

And I simply don’t automatically trust ”stories”that I see/read in The Sun anymore. And that’s a shame.

As for The Province, still haven’t heard from Moriarty: but in addition to those PVR Telus ads, he might want to check out the Sept 14 Province article, “Too few in the trades”  right near (you’re learning the new way to read a newspaper now) a number of ads for skills training schools.

And they wonder why people are turning away from newspapers.