There is gold in them supplements, but risk, too

It’s a tough time for newspapers. The recession has not been kind to them, and their fundamental business model is under threat, as previously discussed in this column.

In Europe and the United States titles have gone to the wall and journalists have been thrown out of jobs in large numbers. Here in South Africa we have seen only one casualty, the Weekender, but many media companies have had to find other ways of cutting costs.

No wonder, then, that newspapers are keen to develop other sources of income. One tool that has long been available is the advertising supplement, sometimes called the special project. You know the kind of thing: a page or two of ads for a furniture business, for instance, large pictures of the managing director behind a desk and several articles of uncritical reportage about the company and the farsightedness of its board. Expect many unctuous quotes from the boss.

Sometimes they mark some company milestone such as an anniversary or a new branch, in which case suppliers and clients buy space to express their good wishes.

I’ve never really understood the appeal of this kind of thing. It’s flattering, no doubt, for the bosses to see themselves in print but I can’t see many other people actually reading the stuff. It would have to be a particularly desolate waiting room for me to spend more than a moment on it. Even the classifieds usually hold more interest.

The Mail & Guardian publishes supplements in almost every edition. They are inserted one into the other in a way that makes navigation almost impossible.

But, from an editorial point of view, the paper is making an effort to chart a more independent course for them. The model, I guess, is the London Financial Times, the supplements of which maintain the same editorial integrity as the rest of the paper. Rather than being built around a particular business, the focus tends to be on a field or a country. Ads are then sold to firms that have an interest in the area, but it is made very clear that the companies have no influence on the editorial content.

In South Africa advertisers often still expect to be able to shape the editorial copy that goes in sections of this kind, or even supply the material. And sales staff are often more than ready to offer “value adds”, such as a promise of some free positive coverage to go with a paid-for ad — advertising masquerading as editorial copy.

There’s a name for material that blurs the line between advertising and editorial — advertorial — and advertisers are fond of it because it presents a controllable, positive spin with the apparent authority of journalistic independence.

Although the M&G is making an effort to swim against this tide, it doesn’t always succeed. The edition of March 26 included a supplement with the topic “Mining Africa”. At least one reader, Susanna Godehart, was troubled by the material and wrote to say that at least four articles “appear to be advertorials but are not marked as such”.

She also queried the reports of mining in particular countries, saying they “sound like government statements marketing mineral resources to the mining industry”. Godehart wanted to know whether the paper was sponsored by mining industries: “For a newspaper of your reputation and price, these articles are unacceptable,” she wrote.

The four articles she pointed out sang the praises of mining companies Areva and BHP Billiton. One of them was even repeated on another page. At the very least, the page that carried them should have been labelled advertorial and the typeface and presentation should also have set a clear marker that this was different to normal editorial material.

It would have been better not to have used this kind of copy at all. But if it had to be used, it should have been set apart as clearly as possible.

I was less sure about the country reports she also highlighted. It seemed to me that they made an attempt to hold to a reasonably independent viewpoint and I did not feel they read like government statements. Unfortunately, the fact that they appeared with actual advertorial undermined their credibility.

I was told that time pressure was a factor in allowing this kind of material on to the page. That may be understandable, but slips of this kind undermine efforts by the newspaper to carve out a niche for a new kind of supplements section.

The Mail & Guardian’s ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, contact, or phone the paper on 0112507300 and leave a message

This column was originally published in the Mail & Guardian on May 24, 2010.

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