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.”