advertorial

The Chronicle Herald is printing advertorials promoting Nova Scotia Business, Inc, the province’s economic development agency. The campaign includes “freelance-written articles and original photography appearing weekly in the printed Herald and its community papers, banner advertisements, social media, and a specially designed online hub of content,” wrote NSBI spokesperson Shawn Hirtle in an email. NSBI paid $34,900 for the content for advertorials running from January 1 to March 31, and NSBI staff is waiting for an approved agency budget before deciding whether to continue the arrangement, said Hirtle.

The most visible part of the advertorial campaign are advertising pieces labelled “World.Oyster.Go” that appear in the business section of the paper version of the Chronicle Herald. But  readers could be forgiven for not realizing that articles with the World.Oyster.Go. tagline are advertisements. The articles look just like news stories — World.Oyster.Go. stories are mixed in with straight news stories, using what looks like the same font. The word “advertisement” does not appear on the articles, but rather there’s a smaller tag, next to the large World.Oyster.Go tag, that reads simply “Custom Content Feature.” Even if readers see the “Custom Content Feature” tag, there’s no explanation for what that means.

On the Chronicle Herald website, World.Oyster.Go. articles have their own sub-tab under the business tab, but there’s no explanation there, either. Clicking on the “Sponsored Content” link leads to a listing of all the World.Oyster.Go. articles, but doesn’t give any further information.

The first two World.Oyster.Go. articles appeared on February 17. Both were directly lifted from Nova Scotia Business, Inc.’s website. The first  plugs “a unique resource at NSBI” — Liesl Harewood, who has been brought on board as a certified Private Sector Liaison Officer. The second confusingly includes an interview between “NSBI” and NSBI’s own employee, Pam Rudolph, as well as with Richard Garson, a manager at the airport. At the bottom of each of the Chronicle Herald versions of the articles, there’s a link back to the NSBI original, but it reads merely “To see the original article, click here,” without actually saying it came from NSBI.

Since then, World.Oyster.Go. has evolved. Freelance writer Heather Laura Clarke is often credited as the author of the articles, which usually profile either NSBI itself or companies that are direct clients of NSBI, including Surrette Battery ($400,000 in payroll rebates); LED Roadway Lighting ($5 million in equity investments); Ad-Dispatch / Current Studios ($250,000 loan).

“Newspapers, goodness knows, need revenue streams,” says David Swick, who teaches media ethics at the University of King’s College Journalism School. “The Herald is obviously thinking that it’s worth it to be offering a whole bunch of stories in the paper and online that have the words ‘sponsored content’ — which some people will know but most people will not know, that this is not journalism. Somebody else wanted this to appear. But a lot of people will think this is actually Herald journalism.”

Swick says the “custom content” tag was probably chosen to be purposefully vague.

“Newspapers tend to be a literal communication tool,” says Swick. “You have to write quite literally because that’s the nature of the medium. And if something is vague, readers tend to go right over it and not think about it much, so I suspect these words ‘custom content’ were chosen to obfuscate.”

NSBI sees the advertorials as strictly within the agency’s mission. “NSBI is focused on – and mandated to – work with companies to increase export activity and get more companies in the province doing new exporting activity,” wrote Hirtle, the NSBI spokesperson. “We need to increase awareness about and encourage exporting, especially with Nova Scotia companies that are export-curious or export-ready.”

Chronicle Herald president Mark Lever has not responded to an interview request.

But as Swick sees it, “the Herald is probably looking at this and thinking, ‘OK, we’re going to pick up 35 grand and that could pay half of a journalist’s salary for a year. My concern, though, is credibility — what about all your thousands of readers who aren’t privy to what these vague words ‘custom content’ mean? They’re reading all of this extremely favourable copy and thinking that it’s Herald journalism. And how many of them will say, ‘Gee, the Herald only seems to be presenting one side, and is not presenting the whole picture.’

“And of course all great journalism is not one-sided,” continues Swick. “And all great journalism is focused on serving the reader — it is not there to get across the message of a political party or a corporation or an organization like [NSBI] wants you to get. That is anti-journalism. This is why advertorial so concerns me. Yes, the revenue is needed. But is it worth the price, and will the Herald overall be glad that they’re doing this when they have a lot of readers who trust them a little less?

“In journalism, all we’ve got is credibility,” says Swick. “We have to defend the credibility. And if it means missing out on the odd $35,000 contract, that’s probably a good idea, and we should spend our energy trying to find other ways to get that money. Surely to god we can do something other than give up the credibility we have left.”

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. In my opinion NSBI is using its resources to build a cult of personalities, manipulate the general public, spread their own propaganda under the guise of journalism. It is truly unfortunate that the Herald did not take a stronger position with clarification to their readers of the advertising NSBI was presenting, as opposed to supposedly unbiased journalism.
    We all know the newspapers are hurting for money and they are trying their best to come up with new ideas to increase their revenue stream. Unfortunately, in my opinion, they have dropped their credibility to a new low with these type of tactics. NSBI is pulling the strings and I suspect there will be more companies willing to step up and do the same.
    I feel sorry for our last major newspaper as it appears the end could be near. Selling your most prized possessions to the highest bidder is not a sustainable position Without credibility I see no reason to read the paper.
    I hope if NSBI decides to continue their strategy the Herald will decide to be sure people realize what they are reading. Everyone can make mistakes but now it up to them to correct the perception of deception.

  2. What about the possibility the Herald is working in conjunction with the Mooseheads? When the Mooseheads trade a player, many french publications out of Quebec report it days before the Herald does. It seems the Herald releases player transaction news around a similar time as the Mooseheads’ press releases, even though the Herald has Willy Palov assigned as the beat writer for the Mooseheads. The possibility of the Herald being controlled by the Mooseheads is far more exciting than NSBI advertorials. People care about the Mooseheads, nobody cares about these advertorials.

  3. “custom content”

    I have a news release for the Herald about how fucking awesome I am, and how I saved the city this winter by shovelling the entire city, while fighting the Godzilla-like monster that threatened the city in February, and dated Jennifer Lopez.

    I was pretty amazing this winter. You’ll read about it in the paper, who we all trust as a source of fair info.

    Right?

  4. Remember. These NSBI “features” appeared in the Herald’s Business section which in most newspapers has a long tradition of cheerleading and boosterism. See Roger Taylor; I rest my case.
    Yesterday’s Globe and Mail Report on Business (ROB) reported that two retired CIBC executives will get a further $25 million in total in “post-employed arrangements”. With an apparently straight face (and notwithstanding that it’s April Fool’s Day), CIBC said the money was payment for time the two executives said they’d work if their replacements couldn’t be found. The former CAO got $8.5 million for a “pledged” extra year that he ended up not having to work; and the former CEO was paid $16.7 million for an unworked period of “up to 2 years”.

    Predictably, the ROB reporter had and sought no comment about this rich going-away present.

    Gold-plated certainly never applies to management in the private sector.