Occupiers, big media wants your help!

In a sea of inept coverage on the Occupy protests, news corporations are now out to make more cash by doing less journalism. Shannon Rupp on the grab for free content — and the persistent myth that newspapers' raison d’être is to inform citizens. The article originally appeared on The Tyee, and is reprinted with permission.

In a sea of inept coverage on the Occupy protests, news corporations are now out to make more cash by doing less journalism. Shannon Rupp on the grab for free content — and the persistent myth that newspapers' raison d’être is to inform citizens. The article originally appeared on The Tyee, and is reprinted with permission.

In a sea of inept coverage on the Occupy Wall Street protests I have to give the Vancouver Sun credit for making me laugh out loud with this tweet: "Going to #occupyvancouver? Help us cover it. Send updates, photos, video to…"

So let me get this straight: a corporate media monopoly that is a cause of many of the problems under protest is trying to exploit people further by getting them to provide free content on which it profits?

Well, I guess you have to admire the chutzpah.

No doubt a few suckers fell for it, due to the inexplicable endurance of the Myth of Woodstein — that notion that newspapers still run journalism intended to inform citizens.

Ever since Woodward & Bernstein captured the public imagination by exposing Tricky Dick's Watergate antics the public has believed that journalists work in their service, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Mass media have always favoured the power structure and seen themselves as its stalwarts. Even in Woodstein's glory era, The Boys on the Bus looked at the reporters covering the 1972 presidential campaign and found that that the bulk of the pack was slavishly pro-Nixon. But Hollywood doesn't do movies about the sort of doofuses who get off on saying they were pals with the President.

The Fog of War, a new book about Canadian media censorship in World War II by Ottawa journalist and historian Mark Bourrie, again reinforces the sorry fact that journos like to cosy up to power. Apparently media were blithely censoring themselves while the official censors were often pushing to get more news on the public record. William Lyon Mackenzie King was legendary for his media manipulation skills and as Bourrie notes, he managed the press by "obliging the desire of journalists to be insiders."

Woodstein and other fairy tales

Journalism has a history of complaisance, punctuated by occasional challengers who fuel the legends, and yet the public still buys into the Woodstein myth?

Although I'm not sure how even the most casual reader could believe that corporate newspapers are producing anything but propaganda-for-profit after the shenanigans at the European edition of the Wall Street Journal.

According to reports in Bloomberg News, The Guardian, and eventually WSJ itself, the European edition of WSJ was in a scheme to boost circulation figures by buying its own papers via a third party — a company called Executive Learning Partnership.

As part of this business partnership deal, former European publisher Andrew Langhoff instructed WSJ writers to do what is increasingly called "brand journalism" and write about ELP, a consulting firm. After other media reported this interesting arrangement, Langhoff resigned.

"Because the agreement could leave the impression that news coverage can be influenced by commercial relationships," he wrote, "I believe my resignation is the most honourable course."


I've worked in papers where they banned reviews on restaurants that didn't buy ads, and ones that demanded coverage of events that did. I think the notion that coverage is influenced by commercial relationships is more than an impression and it's not news. I suspect Langhoff's real downfall was the plot to defraud the advertisers who bought space on good faith that someone was reading the damn paper.

Advertorial 2.0

We used to call those promotional stories puff pieces, or advertorial if it was paid for directly and labeled boldly for readers to see. Mostly we just called it tacky. But now brand journalism is the brave new face of media and so widespread that it prompted two sessions at the SXSW Conference last spring. "Brave New World: Debating Brands' Role as Publishers" turned out to be lively, as they say, and it's well worth the hour or so it takes to listen.

"We had a conference call in prep for this panel I thought we needed splatter gowns," noted the moderator, National Public Radio's Tom Ashbrook. He outlined the hostility felt by scribes from the previous definition of journalism, to purveyors of the new one.

No doubt that natural hostility was exacerbated by the how-to workshop that was also part of SXSW 2011, "Brand Journalism: The Rise of Non-fiction Advertising."

"Non-fiction advertising." Let's just let that sit there a moment, as my colleague Terry Glavin likes to say when he encounters a particularly pungent coil of bullshit.

It's citizen journalism gone corporate, which was inevitable since no one works for free.

But it's also true that we've seen the likes of it for years on blatant propaganda platforms like the Puff'n Stuff Host, as a colleague calls The Huffington Post. And it predates the Internet. If you read the Travel section of your local newspaper, or Homes, Cars, Entertainment, Life, Sports, Business, or any of their "Special Supplements," you will be familiar with advertiser-driven content, as it's euphemistically called.

I have to say I'd be more comfortable if outlets just made it clear they're doing this — most deny it loudly, since they believe it devalues their product in the eyes of both advertisers and readers. That's the reason we still find some real news in some papers: the whole enterprise collapses if the audience thinks it's getting nothing but promotional copy — or so the theory goes. (I think we only have to look at fashion and shelter magazines to know that’s not true, but that’s another story.)

The old media model carried with it a lot of 19th century values, including quaint notions about truth and ethics. In the new media world, I think transparency trumps ethics. Yet papers continue to be discreet about the wealth of unpaid editorial content they run. The Globe and Mail, the National Post, and the Toronto Star all run free bloggers — the Star even had unpaid bloggers covering the recent Ontario election, although hard news was once considered sacred. As no one works for free, we have to assume the bloggers are engaged in some form of self-promotion or brand journalism.


Then there are the columnists. I had an editor who used to growl at commentators who played fast-and-loose with the truth: "You are entitled to your own opinion; you are not entitled to your own facts." In good newsrooms the standard was that you don't cheat readers — but that's clearly an old-fashioned view. The way columnists shill-for-pay has led British environmental writer George Monbiot to propose that journalists declare every source of income in the manner of politicians.

Still the public remains an odd combination of cynical-but-ignorant and naively trusting when it comes to understanding that news media have morphed into promotional platforms.

A poll done by Ipsos Reid for the Canadian Journalism Foundation claims that 40 per cent of the public thinks Canadian media are phone-hacking a la Rupert Murdoch's News of the World. To which I say: we should be so lucky. At least it would mean they were actively gathering news.

The reality, like most evils, is far more banal. Denizens of newsrooms are much like other corporate employees who push paper at 9-to-5 office jobs. They engage in what the Brits have dubbed "churnalism" — they churn out puffy content by rewriting press releases and other bumf. Like employees everywhere, they try not to piss-off their bosses since they have student loans, and kids, and mortgages.

The CJF raises the question of whether journalism should be regulated to restore public confidence. That's a red herring. Unless they can also regulate the publicly traded corporations that employ journalism grads, I doubt it will either improve news media’s content or credibility.

Which brings me back to the cheek of a big money corporation like the Vancouver Sun trawling for free labour amongst OWS protestors. I think the protesters should provide content for all the news outlets, but only if they can arrange the same quid pro quo the advertisers get. Brand journalism in exchange for labour seems just as reasonable as puff pieces in exchange for ad dollars.