This ain’t your parents’ advertorial

By Karen Wirsig

So Global TV is now airing “news” reports sponsored by advertisers. The piece about what a pain it is to do your taxes might be brought to you by Q&Z Tax services. The one about all the crime in the east end could be courtesy of the local police association.

Advertisers are torqueing the concept of advertorial into all sorts of creepy concepts with almost unintelligible definitions: branded content (Coke’s corporate webpage is apparently now a “digital magazine”), sponsored content (The Atlantic  did it badly and has introduced new guidelines to try to square the circle) and native advertising (the disturbing label for those annoying “promoted” tweets and “sponsored” Facebook posts).

You could end up doing this kind of work without even knowing it at the start. As discussed quite a bit on this blog recently, the publisher of magazines such as Elle and Canadian Living – along with dozens of community newspapers – is forcing freelance writers and photographers to sign contracts allowing the company to use their material in whatever way it – and presumably its advertisers – want. The Canadian Media Guild has heard from one freelancer who was forced to sign the contract in order to get paid, after submitting their work.

I guess there’s a certain logic to these developments but, well, wow.

Trying to have a wall between the publisher/station owner and the newsroom or editorial department has always been a struggle. The publisher/owner likes lucrative advertising contracts. They might meet an advertiser at a cocktail party. The advertiser might slip them a word about an “interesting story.” Many, many reporters have been on the receiving end of an assignment like that. It’s standard protocol to treat yourself to a stiff glass or two of something at the end of it.

When I worked as a municipal reporter a decade ago, the editor suggested we do a Jan Wong-style series of lunches with city councillors. My editor suggested some names and, without looking me in the eye, said one was a priority. Warning bells went off but I had the lunch, wrote up the interview straight, and handed it in. Got home late that night to a phone message. The publisher wanted to add some things to the piece about the councillor’s accomplishments at city hall, which he hadn’t bothered mentioning in the interview despite many opportunities. Childless and still fit enough to work in a bar to pay the rent at the time, I stormed into a meeting with the editor and publisher the next day and said I would quit if anything like that ever happened again. We had no written editorial policies, no code of ethics. But they seemed to accept that they were wrong to break through the wall and promised never to do it again(!).

Now, even the pretense of the wall is gone. And forget the cocktail party. Advertisers want to be right in the story meeting and on the lineup desk. (Decoding what the marketing specialist says in this piece isn’t easy but I think I caught the gist). That is, if they are not skipping the newsroom altogether and creating their own fantastical eyeball-grabbing vehicle.

Some readers and viewers may accept this new content, Tailored! Especially! For! Them! Others have and will continue to tune out and give up on the news altogether.

Either way, media organizations are not out to save journalism by playing along with such marketing innovations. It will be up to us to reinvent it… those who work in it and all those who depend on it as the lifeblood of democracy.


Karen Wirsig does outreach for the Canadian Media Guild and dabbles in media policy. You can find her on Twitter @karenatcmg or by email at


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