Grand Rapids Press reporter Chris Knape had an interesting post on his Knape's Corner blog earlier this week about the lines between the news media and PR becoming more blurry. His post is based on the revelation that the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority is paying online magazine Rapid Growth Media to include content about DDA projects--effectively buying coverage.
Knape points out that the trouble comes when Rapid Growth does not make clear when the stories are objective journalism or paid content. This is blurry indeed. The various search engines such as Google and Yahoo learned early on that making a distinction between paid search results and natural search results was a key consumer demand. Buying content in a publication also gives me a chill as I think of the practice in some countries, where PR people regularly "bribe" journalists in order to get coverage. In those contexts, it is not seen as unethical; it's more on the order of tipping the doorman, simple business practice. This kind of ethical relativism in global PR is causing problems for the International Public Relations Association as it seeks to create a global code of ethics for the profession.
But back to West Michigan. Is the DDA-Rapid Growth contract a bad thing? Is it all that new?
If you look at Rapid Growth carefully, they have a mix of repurposed news media articles, news releases or other corporate content, and its own reporting. If they want to be considered a traditional journalistic outlet, this may be problematic. Where is the difference between news and opinion? Reporting and PR subsidized content?
But wait! Traditional newspapers have carried both news and opinion for years. And the lines here are blurring as well. What is the difference between an op-ed or column and a 'news analysis' article placed among the news articles? What's the difference between a column and a blog--they are organized separately on MLive. Is a blog reporting or opinion? Is there not some blurring between articles and blogs? And what are we to make of it when a reporter blogs about the same subject upon which he has reported?
That's happened in this case. Knape blogged about this DDA-Rapid Growth tidbit on Tuesday, to be followed by an article on the front of the business section on the same subject yesterday. Does this damage the credibility of the newspaper? Can articles by reporters who blog about the same subjects be seen as objective? It's another line blurred.
Personally, I think Knape is right--the public should know whether content is the result of an objective journalistic endeavor or paid content. We have had 'advertorials' for years, and the convention has always been to label them as such. No matter what changes and trends emerge in new media, both the journalism and the PR professions need to continue to attribute the source and be transparent about our objectives.