Sponsored column elicits cries of conflict

Brian Tierney may be the most closely watched newspaper owner in America, but a certain segment of the newspaper-watching population would prefer that he hadn't gotten into the business in the first place.

Brian Tierney may be the most closely watched newspaper owner in America, but a certain segment of the newspaper-watching population would prefer that he hadn't gotten into the business in the first place.

As a career PR man with a knack for catchy advertising strategies, Tierney's leadership of a group that purchased The Philadelphia Inquirer almost a year ago sent chills up the spines of some journalism purists who feared what he might turn the esteemed, but financially troubled paper into.

Well, the Inquirer certainly hasn't fallen apart, despite a round of layoffs. Tierney has managed to stoke the interest of advertisers, even instituting front-page ad space. But the paper's most recent move has shone a light once again on the aforementioned purists' concerns.

Last week, the Inquirer debuted a new column in its business section called PhillyInc. It features small, punchy news items about companies with local connections, and the paper plans to hire an editor specifically for the column.

But PhillyInc has drawn outsized interest not because of its news items, but because it is sponsored by Citizens Bank - complete with branding showing the bank's logo and its signature color outlining the space.

That The Philadelphia Inquirer has sold sponsorship of a news column in its business section, featuring items about local corporations, to a corporation with a large local presence is certainly a cause for concern for many people.

Jay Devine, a spokesman for Philadelphia Media Holdings, says that the paper has not yet hired its new editor for the column, but perhaps that's not surprising; whoever takes the position may have the honor of supervising the most obviously ethically contentious space in the news pages of any major US newspaper.

Regardless, the Inquirer's editorial leadership maintains that it is shocked and not a little insulted that outside observers would question the new column's propriety. Asked if he had any initial doubts when he heard of the sponsorship plan for the column, Inquirer deputy managing editor for news Carl Lavin tells PRWeek, "I've been excited about the opportunity to provide readers with more fresh, sophisticated coverage of the local business community."

Asked if he received any assurances about the editorial independence of the new column, he replies: "When our owners bought the paper a year ago, they assured us about editorial independence. I don't have to go back to them every time."

And asked if the readers themselves deserve some extra assurance that a business column sponsored and branded by a local advertiser would, in fact, be independent, Lavin responds: "We give them those assurances every day through what we cover. You're judged by the kind of coverage you provide. Nobody in this company would do anything to damage that credibility."

While there seems to be no reason not to take Lavin at his word, the view that simply saying, "We are honest," is enough to negate such an apparent conflict of interest is myopic in the extreme. This is the reason that so many rules exist to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest: Because once the appearance exists, a reader can never be totally certain the actual conflict is not affecting coverage.

Lavin argues for judgment based on what the column covers, but no one outside the newsroom can know exactly what the paper has decided not to cover.

Shrinking the news hole is one thing. Selling the news hole is quite another.

"Our readers are very smart readers," Lavin says. "They can tell the difference between an ad and journalism."

That may be true. But the Inquirer must prepare for the event that it may not like where readers classify PhillyInc.

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