The Irish Times has run things in its print edition that appear to be independent journalism, but are in fact advertiser-sponsored content.
This is very sad for both the Irish Times and for journalism in Ireland.
In doing this, the Times is selling off its credibility, leaving me to wonder, each time I read an article, whether it is a journalist’s relatively disinterested view, or whether it as an advertiser’s spin on its own product.
In doing this, the Times is undermining the institution of journalism in Ireland. When the nation’s paper of record shows this kind of disdain for the fundamentals of journalism, what are ethical, young journalists supposed to aspire to?
Yes, it’s a tough time for newspapers. Yes, the Irish Times is a business that needs to make money to survive so that it can pay young (and old) journalists’ salaries. But it can do that without doing this.
It can sell all the ads it wants; readers understand that it need to make money, and some ads are even interesting and useful. Just don’t lie to us. Don’t trick us like this, no matter how much an advertiser is offering.
I read the Irish Times every weekday, and often on the weekend. I gripe about it, but that’s because I have high expectations for it: I think of it as the best daily newspaper in Dublin.
On March 21, I read an article in the Times entitled “Reinforcing Ireland’s global leadership in aviation finance”, which was about “A new MSc in aviation finance from the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School [that] aims to support the industry”.
I was disappointed to find the story weirdly uncritical, even cheerleaderish. I wondered whether it was paid content, an advertisement masquerading as journalism.
But when I’d written an article the previous month about the rise of “native advertising”, I had spoken with the Times‘s Gary Quinn, the man in charge of a new push the paper was making to do more of this type of advertising.
And he’d assured me that the Times‘s native ads would be “very, very clearly labelled and identified”. “It’s really important to us how our readers perceive our content,” he told me at the time. “It would be awful if anyone were to read something in the Irish Times and think that it was straight editorial” when it wasn’t.
So I looked carefully at this aviation-finance article, and when I did not find any indication that it might be an advertisement in news’s clothing, I decided I must just be paranoid. Have a look for yourself; the article’s at the bottom of this page from the Times.
Still, the article nagged at me, so I went online to find the digital version so I could share it with an acquaintance who has an interest in Ireland’s aviation finance industry. And I found that, online, the article is – just as Quinn promised – very, very clearly labelled as “sponsored”.
So is it okay to fool print readers, but not online readers? Or has Quinn’s message about clearly labelling sponsored content not reached the folks putting together the print edition?
I mentally marked it up to a mistake. On deadline, someone had forgotten to add a single element to the complex jigsaw of that day’s newspaper. No big deal, people make mistakes.
Fixing the Broken Media Model
On 11 April, though, when I was reading the Times, I found an article entitled “Fixing the broken media model with diversification”. It looked like the advertisement for the aviation-finance MSc.
Each was labelled “Innovation Profile: UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School”. Each featured a large headshot of someone from the business school, and consisted of that person’s views. Each ended with the school’s web address.
Like the aviation-finance advertisement, the broken-media advertisement was labelled “sponsored” online – but not in the print edition. To print readers, both advertisements were presented as articles.
On Monday evening I emailed Gary Quinn images of the online and print versions of these two articles and asked him for an explanation. By deadline Tuesday evening, I’d received no response.
The broken-media advertisement begins: “Even before the economic crash, newspapers and media organizations around the world were finding their business models challenged by the internet.”
The advertisement then goes on to present UCD marketing professor Mary Lambkin’s views on how newspapers can make money these days. She has some sensible suggestions, which almost make me want to buy a degree at UCD.
She does not suggest, as a winning strategy, that newspapers should pass off advertisements as journalism.
“The need is still there for good journalism,” she says. Newspapers “can’t compromise on quality; if they do they will drive their audience away”.