A response to Ira Basen’s Clissold journalism lecture

The annual Clissold lecture at Western University is one of the high points of the year for the university’s master of arts in journalism program; it has brought to campus the likes of Christine Blatchford, Linden MacIntyre, Gwynne Dyer and Michelle Shephard, among many others, to lecture on journalism-related subjects and provide a kind of state-of-the-vocation analysis.

This year, it was veteran broadcaster Ira Basen’s turn. The longtime radio and documentary producer is currently the CanWest Global Fellow in Media at Western. I first met him about a decade ago when we served on the same media panel at a conference for public relations professionals, sponsored by The Canadian Institute, in Toronto. Basen has since produced two important radio series on media: Spin Cycles, a six-part look at the interplay between the public relations industry and the media, and News 2.0 – The Future of News in the Age of Social Media.

Tuesday night’s talk was, by Basen’s own admission, substantially off the advertised topic, which was “And New the News: Re-inventing Journalism in the Digital Age.” Instead, he focused largely on the emergence of “custom content” farms and divisions within the bowels of established legacy media properties such as The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star and the threats those miniature content factories might pose to authentic or serious journalism.

Basen did manage a neat trick at the start of his presentation: spending considerable time on the career and business challenges faced by the lecture’s namesake, Edward Clissold (1833-1915), a prominent journalist in his time who ran the London Advertiser, which folded in 1937. “The Advertiser died in 1937 during the Depression when ad dollars dried up,” said Basen, in a pre-lecture interview. “A similar situation prevails today, of course, as ad dollars can no longer support print journalism as it used to.”

I won’t review the entire lecture here (perhaps FIMS will eventually make an audio recording available), but merely respond to some of the points Basen made during the course of his well-received talk, which was followed by a short Q&A.

1. To Basen’s contention that the London Advertiser’s demise was due in large part to the effects of the Depression and the increasingly desperate attempts to have editorial copy in the newspaper align with the interests of advertisers, foreshadowing today’s custom-content operations: The Depression no doubt a factor in the newspaper’s demise, but a far more critical role was played by the steady rise, already during Clissold’s era, of the Blackburn family’s newspaper property in London. Simply put, the London Free Press won what amounted to a protracted circulation war between the two titles. Local competition for advertising dollars was keen and was taken up a notch in 1922, when Free Press proprietor Arthur Blackburn launched CJGC-AM, which in 1934 became CFPL-AM. After a young Walter Blackburn took the reins from his deceased father in 1936, the print-only London Advertiser soon died, ceding the local advertising marketplace to the growing bi-medial Blackburn empire. (It would become tri-medial within two more decades.) There’s a lesson in there for media companies that, today, are trying to find their way across a variety of delivery platforms.

2. To Basen’s concern about the proliferation of custom-content operations at mainstream news media companies, and the deleterious effects such operations may have on quality journalism, causing an inexorable tilt toward client or advertiser interests rather than toward truth, accuracy and balanced reporting: Certainly, these developments are fascinating and worth watching. The emergence of Star Content Studios at the Toronto Star (see this memo of introduction at Globe and Mail reporter Steve Ladurantaye‘s blog from Star publisher John Cruickshank) and the Custom Content Group at the Globe and Mail are new forays into client-driven storytelling and enterprise. But “special sections” to draw new advertisers or incremental revenue from existing advertisers are nothing new in newspapering — they are at least a half-century old. Whether they were “Progress” editions or special sections about chambers of commerce, rising business figures or special community events, newspapers have for a very long time been willing to package staff-written content around special themes and topics that would draw specific types of advertisers. What’s new in the current iteration of custom content creation is the ambition of legacy media to assist clients with reputation management and corporate communications.

3. Regarding Basen’s contention that certain advertisers are actively trying to “fool” readers into thinking their “special report” or advertorial content is really journalistic content, due to the placement and design of their messaging: I don’t believe advertisers much care if readers see these information packages as journalism or as advertising — the placement of their product and engagement with the reader is all they care about. They are renting a reader’s eyeballs for a short period of time and believe that content dressed up and adorned in a manner similar to what the reader is used to getting is the most effective way of communicating with him/her. Controls placed by publishers on how close advertisers can get to the actual look and feel of their journalistic products have been robust and I don’t see any degradation, yet, in those built-in safeguards.

4. To Basen’s view that the pre-election supplement published by the Globe and Mail with the support of Nissan Canada and subsequently hand-delivered in six Canadian cities represents a new and potentially dangerous trend in the liaisons between newspaper publishers and advertisers: Advertisers have long been able to specify exactly where an ad must go, what its precise dimensions should be, what the quality of the paper stock should be like and how the ad is distributed. If Tiffany’s wants an ad for a Christmas pendant on page 2 of The Globe in the Atlantic, Ottawa, Calgary and B.C. editions, that’s exactly where it will go. The desire by Nissan Canada to engage in a big spend with The Globe isn’t surprising, nor is its preferred method of hand-delivering the special Nov. 5 supplement on street corners in six Canadian markets. The company wasn’t interested in a buying the entire sweep of the newspaper’s circulation — only certain pockets of select markets. Publishers will indeed try to accommodate those special orders — and always have. To Basen’s point that some Globe writers were disappointed to have their stories appear in the supplement: certainly. Journalists want their stories read by the broadest possible audience. Their concern was likely not so much that their pre-election stories sat next to Nissan’s ads or in a product sponsored by the automaker, but rather that the highly selective distribution meant a smaller readership for their copy, given that it would not be reprinted in the newspaper’s broadsheet pages.

It was somewhat regrettable that Basen’s lecture didn’t focus on some of the issues on which his advertised topic would have touched: the place of legacy media in a multi-platform news universe, the construction of new packages for news and information for delivery platforms such as tablets, the financial realities facing large media companies as they try to push content through emerging platforms, and the future of e-editions — a type of information package being sold but nearly ignored by companies in their efforts to get readers to pass through paywalls toward a laptop or desktop experience. Most importantly, in the context of the Clissold lecture, would have been what all these trends mean for journalism between now and 2020.

The evening left plenty of exploration and discussion on those themes for another day.

Update (Nov. 25): Ira Basen has posted a robust and important response to this post; please have a look at it under the “Reply” link at the top.

2 Replies to “A response to Ira Basen’s Clissold journalism lecture”

  1. Hi Larry:
    Thank you for your comments about my lecture. I’d like to clarify some of the points you raised.

    1. I realize that the Advertiser was in a losing battle with the Free Press for circulation and ad dollars right from the day it launched, and I did say that the Advertiser’s demise was a result of the loss of advertising revenue during the Depression, but I never suggested that it was also because of its “increasingly desperate attempts to have editorial copy in the newspaper align with the interests of advertisers”. I pointed out that the Advertiser was doing that, but so was every other newspaper at the time, including the Free Press.

    2. You write that “I don’t believe advertisers much care if readers see these information packages as journalism or as advertising”. I actually think that advertisers care very much, and are willing to pay a premium for copy that looks like editorial copy. John Stackhouse of the Globe made that specific point at the CJF panel last month on the future of newspapers. He said that advertisers do not want readers to be able to tell the difference between advertorial content and normal editorial content, and that newspapers need to do a better job of distinguishing between the two.

    3. You also write that “controls placed by publishers on how close advertisers can get to the actual look and feel of their journalistic products have been robust and I don’t see any degradation, yet, in those built-in safeguards”. I think this would come as a surprise to many people in the newspaper business who are constantly fretting about that degradation (without doing much about it).

    Let me know the next time you see one of these things labeled as an “advertorial”, rather than a “special interest supplement”, or some other equally meaningless description displayed in smaller and smaller fonts. It is now also increasingly more likely that the typeface and other physical features of the supplement will closely mirror the appearance of the regular newspaper. Some newspapers still require reporters to write advertorial copy. Your readers might be interested in this article http://kjr.kingsjournalism.com/?p=6055 which outlines how pervasive and how misleading these practices have become throughout Atlantic Canada.

    4. Regarding the Globe’s pre-election supplement paid for by Nissan Canada, I did not
    use the word “dangerous” to describe this development. I am concerned about something like the weekly Financial Post energy supplement being produced in association with Shell. That pushes the envelope too far for my taste, but what I said in my lecture is, “do I think that the editors of Canada’s largest newspapers will compromise their editorial integrity for the sake of attracting advertisers? No I do not. Not now, and I expect, not ever… My worry is not that advertisers will take over the editorial process. My worry is that readers will think they have”.

    Also, the Globe’s special section represented far more than an advertiser “specifying exactly where their ad must go”. This was an advertiser funding an entire editorial project that would not have happened were it not for the money provided up front by the advertiser. When John Stackhouse says this was something unprecedented in the history of the Globe I think we should probably take him at his word.

    5. Finally, I agree that there were lots of areas that I could have and possibly should have talked about in my lecture regarding the future of news. The reason that I focused on the rise of custom content is that as Michael Cooke of the Toronto Star stated at the CJF panel, there will be no future of news as we know it without print newspapers.

    You can have all the paywalls and digital subscription models and e-books and tablets
    that you want, but a newsroom the size and scope of the Star’s can only be fully funded
    with revenue from a print publication. For every dollar gained in digital revenue, $7
    are lost in print revenue. So making the print product profitable is enormously
    important for the future of news, and as John Stackhouse said at the CJF panel, right now, custom content is the only area of significant revenue growth that newspapers have.

    Thank you for the opportunity to respond.


    1. Hi Ira,
      Thank you for taking the time to offer such a careful and robust response to my original post, Ira. Good points, all. Just a few rejoinders:
      1. It’s interesting to look at the editorial/advertising relationship in Canadian newspapers across the various “press periods” identified by Wilfred Kesterton in his seminal history a few decades ago. The farther back one reaches, the more indistinguishable ad content and editorial content are from one another. In the broad history of newspapering in Canada, the relationship has always been close. The notion of a clearer separation between the two was the invention of early 20th century thinking in newsrooms, during what became the medium’s “golden era.”
      2. One of the most sobering and clarifying notions for newspaper executives is the extent to which newspaper readers value the ads and advertorial content, as opposed to the newsroom’s editorial content. Journalists reflexively recoil at this notion. But study after study, during my years at The London Free Press, showed that many readers bought or subscribed to the paper precisely for the kind of content we journalists tend to regard as, well, less deserving of their attention than the sharp investigative stories or insightful breaking news pieces we’d produce. Simply put, many readers bought the paper for the auto sections, home sections, travel sections, recipes, movie reviews and so on. No need for advertisers to masquerade as newsmakers or disguise their intent. I wasn’t privy to the same level of detail to such readership studies while I was at the Globe, but I suspect there would be similarities.
      3. They don’t do it much anymore, because the term “advertorial” has taken on an ugly sheen, thanks partly to the flogging journalists have given it over the past decade, but not long ago (certainly within the past 15 years), pages and entire sections — at The Free Press and other papers — were indeed marked as “an advertorial section” or “an advertorial supplement.” The Free Press even unapologetically hired an “advertorial writer” who supplied the copy to run alongside the ads in such sections and pages.
      4. I do take John Stackhouse at his word in terms of the breath and scope of the trend he identifies and the fact that the Nissan supplement went further and deeper, in terms of meeting advertiser specifications, than other products the Globe has produced. My point was simply that advertising and advertiser control of the look and feel of the product and the placement of their messages within it has dictated the birth, survival and death of many special sections at many newspaper products over the decades. Whether they be business tabs, auto sections, decorating supplements, travel guides, high-school sports editions, celebratory sports sections, etc., the prospect of advertiser dollars leads the way; editorial most often merely follows.
      Thanks again for a stimulating lecture and interesting discussion.

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