The special section

Le Devoir’s Stéphane Baillargeon laments the lack of prominence given to reporting about poverty in the media these days, even through a serious recession.

The reason, of course, is simple: poverty doesn’t pay.

It’s one of those unfortunate realities of the media that, no matter how many barriers you put up between editorial and advertising, there will always be pressure for the latter to affect the former, and a tendency for that wall to slowly crumble.

One prime example of this (and it’s not a recent development) is so-called “special sections”. Long ago, some newspaper advertising department genius discovered that you’re more likely to attract advertising if the editorial content appeals to the advertiser.

Because automotive companies have among the largest advertising budgets, special sections related to cars are among the most prevalent. In fact, most newspapers have multiple automotive sections every week, even now despite their shrinking sizes. Other attractive topics include sports, employment, real estate, investing, travel, health, home electronics and fashion.

In some cases, the idea of editorial freedom is chucked out the window completely and the section designated “advertorial” (or the more nuanced “special advertising section” or other euphemisms for such). In others, that wall between editorial and advertising is maintained, and the advertisers have no say in the content, except, of course, that it be on a certain topic.

And that’s the problem, because not all topics have big-money advertisers willing to bankroll newspaper sections. Books sections are disappearing from newspapers because book publishers don’t have large advertising budgets. Poverty doesn’t have a financial backer, which is why you never see special sections about it. Homeless shelters don’t have large advertising budgets (that won’t change no matter how many people subscribe to this blog), and neither do so many issues that don’t involve people buying expensive things. Forget reporting on international issues, human relationships, political corruption, the food industry, philosophy, science or other matters that don’t involve excess consumption. Instead, they all have to share space in the cramped, overworked general news section, along with the political horse-race stories and cop briefs.

The environment is a bit of an exception to this. A lot of advertisers are pushing green initiatives, either because they think they’ll make money off of it or just because they’re trying to drum up some good cred. But otherwise, money is a more important factor than importance. That’s why there’s no special section on science but two on RRSPs and one on golf.

The problem is only getting worse as newspapers cut back. Choosing between a books section that loses a lot of money and an automotive section that pays for itself, newspapers will keep the latter.

Contrast the special sections in commercial newspapers with the special sections in student newspapers and the differences show clearly. The student paper I worked for had special sections on gender, sexuality, disability, poverty, and all sorts of other topics that don’t usually get special attention in the mainstream media.

Mainstream media, that is, except Le Devoir. That’s why it’s so small. It could make a lot of money filling its pages with advertiser-friendly fluff, but it has chosen to build a stronger wall to protect its editorial side. Either that, or it’s just being particularly hoity-toity about the type of content it produces.

7 thoughts on “The special section

  1. Mike Gasher

    Great piece, Steve. Newspapers once tried to speak to everyone and about every newsworthy topic. That is no longer the case, as you point out, because it doesn’t make “economic sense.” News judgement becomes secondary to commercial judgement, and newspapers become more and more exclusive. Readers are spoken to as consumers rather than as citizens. The irony is that this strategy seems not to be working very well because people no longer trust their newspaper to given them an honest, non-partisan account of the day’s events. The franchise has been eroded.

  2. Jim J.

    But otherwise, money is a more important factor than importance

    Truer words were never written.

    Some folks say that, because newspapers (and media in general) are corporate-owned, they represent only the interests of the corporate and economic elite. Others are of the opinion that, because most journalists tend to self-identify with liberal politics, the media is a bunch of raving loony socialists who think they are going to be the next Woodward & Bernstein.

    In my honest opinion, the only ideology that newspapers is in favor of, is selling more newspapers. If they can accomplish that with left-wing politics or right-wing politics or middle-of-the-road-politics or hard-hitting investigative journalism or an entire tabloid full of nothing but Page 3 girls, fine.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      You have to be careful about generalizations though. What do you mean by “newspapers” being in favour of something? The journalists? The managers? The owners? Most of the people who work in the field, even those at the upper levels, still believe in what they’re doing. The nature of this erosion of editorial freedom is that it’s slow and subtle, and that no one person is behind it.

      1. Jim J.

        I suspect that pretty much everyone involved with a particular newspaper is in favor of increasing its circulation (and, by extension, increasing revenue and profits).

        Kind of like ExxonMobil wants to sell more oil, Toyota wants to sell more cars, and Microsoft wants to sell more copies of MS Office.

        Obviously, there will be disagreements on how to go about increasing circulation, but if you could find an avenue that was guaranteed to increase circulation, everyone would probably get behind it quickly.

        As a hypothetical, if you could prove that having a Page 3 girl would increase the Gazette’s circulation, the “professional” journalists would almost certainly grumble about it, demeaning, whatever, all that jazz – but if the alternative is layoffs, well, then everyone knows where their bread is buttered.

        To imply otherwise – that all stakeholders aren’t interested in increasing circulation, in favor of high-minded principle – is pure fatuousness.

        Also, by extension, this goes to other media as well: magazines want to sell more magazines, TV news wants to increase its share (or at least break even), etc. Everyone is always looking for that magic bullet, and it may not please every single segment of the operation (editorial, advertising, printing, journalists, etc.), but they’ll all fall in line in pretty short order.

  3. Singlestar

    This week, as the Gazette editorial writers summons up all their courage to try to stay about a millimeter away from the Tories on the global warming issue, it’s cute to count the number of automobile ads in the automotive section and elsewhere in the paper. 6 days a week, gazette readers are blessed with a section about cars!

  4. ATSC

    Good Story. Well done again.

    I would though like to throw in something else. I recently looked at the Amazon Kindle version of the Gazette. No ads!. Just the stories that are from the Gazette. No special ad section as well. Lower price than the actual hard copy per month. Might this be what the industry needs. Subscribers pay for their paper. Delivered electronically. No ads. And the Newspaper company saves on hard copy delivery costs?

    The idea is not perfect though. People would have to purchase a Amazon Kindle. I like the idea of a hard copy of a newspaper or book that I can pass on. But, if it keeps advertisers at bay from effecting editorial, journalists, etc. Perhaps a better option!?


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