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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

UPDATE!: Lines get fuzzier at AJC and elsewhere

Ever found what seemed to be a very helpful and informative neighborhood blog, only to realize it's actually being written by a local real estate agent whose primary aim is to sell you a house? Or a funny gossip blog written by a pretty lady who just happens to work for a PR agency and spends much of her time touting her clients' businesses?

The line between editorial content and marketing copy has been blurring for some time now. The place where those two meet in print media is called "advertorial" and most journalists try to steer of that intersection, reassuring ourselves that it's a necessary evil that helps pay our salaries, allowing us to continue to do God's work.

The AJC has close to 40 blogs on its website, ranging from the excellent and self-descriptive Political Insider and Jay Bookman's smart observations about current events to less weighty topics, such as UGA sports and Momania: A Blog for Busy Moms.

Well, they recently added another, Atlanta at Last, which comes under the heading of "Travel" and has the same basic layout as the AJC's other blogs. The posts themselves consist of blandly boosterish accounts of traveling to other cities. Here's a sample:

When I first was told I was going to Baltimore, the first question that came to mind was, What do I do in Baltimore? Well, what I found out was there is a TON to do in the city and I barely got to scratch the surface on this two day visit.


As you’ve probably guessed, my only complaint about Mile High City isn’t a real complaint at all: There is just too much beauty and entertainment in Denver. Ugh!

Then, as you keep reading, you notice that Southwest Airlines gets mentioned a lot, in rather glowing terms, as in this passage: "I LOVE (pun intended) it when someone else gets as bonkers as I do about Valentine’s Day. I had another reason to love Southwest Airlines, they bought me a Bloody Mary on my return flight."

Now, a keenly observant reader would already be expecting that kind of thing because he would've noticed a subtitle on the blog banner that reads, "Travel adventures brought to you by AJC Advertising and Marketing." Or he might've glanced over to the side and seen this blog description:

About Atlanta at Last: Four travelers on Southwest Airlines’ first flights out of Atlanta share their experiences on this blog brought to you by the AJC Advertising and Marketing Department.

So the AJC does signal that Atlanta at Last is not a standard editorial blog, but rather an advertorial product designed to promote Southwest Airlines, although I imagine that casual readers might not grasp the difference.

UPDATE: Hold the phone! As an anonymous commenter just pointed out to me, Atlanta at Last comment editor Susan Puckett told readers online that Southwest is NOT paying the bloggers or the AJC to host the blog:

Southwest is an advertiser of the AJC, but they are NOT paying the AJC for this blog and have no control over the content. This blog is an independent product conceived and paid for by the AJC marketing and advertising department — not the newsroom.

This is a new one on me. I've put in several calls to the AJC marketing department without getting a response. My first question would be, Do you really expect us to believe that the AJC created this weird advertorial blog and spent money to hire writers and an editor without any direct subsidy from Southwest? Who's paying the writers' airfare? My guess would be that Southwest at least gave the AJC a bunch of ticket vouchers in trade-out for advertising. That kind of arrangement is widespread — we do it here at CL — and it technically wouldn't qualify as a blog subsidy unless the airline knew in advance how the tickets would be used.

But, still…this whole thing is very curious. Oh, I also just noticed that Atlanta at Last isn't accepting more comments just now:

Commenting on this blog is currently closed. You can still read and enjoy the posts and comments from our readers.

(End update) I should point out here that I'm not slamming the AJC as much as I'm pointing out how the line between straight news and opinion on the one hand and promotional copy on the other keeps getting fuzzier — especially online. I was somewhat shocked when someone first showed me Atlanta at Last, mostly because I'd not encountered a newspaper blog consisting entirely of sponsored content. But I wouldn't be surprised if it's happening at other papers. And the AJC should get credit for taking some pains to keep Atlanta at Last separate from editorial; in addition to the disclaimers, it doesn't include it in the blogroll.

An AJC insider tells me the paper's marketing folks first reached out to longtime editorial freelancers to write the blog, but none wanted to do it, so they hired a set of non-professionals. Another staffer we contacted wasn't familiar with the blog and seemed appalled by the mere concept of it.

But I don't want to cast stones — especially after learning just this morning that the CL marketing folks have their own blog that can be accessed off our website. Called the Fun & Free Blog, it appears to tout events connected to advertisers, but I don't want to spend too much time looking at it because it makes me feel dirty.

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