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News or ads? The Examiner makes it hard to tell

Of all the formerly august Bay Area news organizations risking their journalistic credibility by experimenting with bigger, more intrusive advertising, no one does it quite like the San Francisco Examiner.

The free tabloid has been laying out ads to look like news since at least 2005, when a project I worked on, Grade the News, exposed its printing paid restaurant "reviews" written by an industrious ad salesman and turning over the real estate pages to Realtors who offered advice like "hire a Realtor." The paper confessed that the practices were questionable and editors started labeling those article look-alikes by the industry argot: "Advertising Feature."

Now the money-hungry paper has come up with a new advertorial scheme. The paper labels everything in the real estate, auto, employment, and Home & Design sections as ads — including genuine car reviews by real journalists from venerable news organizations such as Scripps Howard News Service. Meanwhile, the bylines on the ad features, laid out almost identically to news columns, identify the shill-writers as "Special to the Examiner," a standard newspaper description for freelance journalists. Media ethicists cringe at the notion that ads and news might appear at first glance interchangeable, even with the obligatory but subtle ad disclaimer. "It may not be paid advertising in the strictest sense, but it's not journalism, either," said Scott Libin, who teaches journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute in Florida. "Advertisers would love to have their messages mistaken for news."

Asked whether there were any potential for readers to be confused, Executive Editor Jim Pimentel said: "I do not produce those sections, the ad department does. Every advertising feature in the issue states on it that it is advertising. ... It can't be any clearer."

But why is the ad department acting like a news department, producing editorial content? Consider the peculiar case of Megan Lynch. She's a copywriter paid by the San Mateo County Association of Realtors to pen ad features for the Examiner's real estate section. The sales execs at the paper liked Lynch's stuff so much that they hired her to write soft news stories in the Home & Design section — also labeled as advertising — on topics like scented candles and sprucing up your Victorian.

The Examiner used to be able to plead poverty when it was run by the local Fang family a few years ago. (Full disclosure: I used to work for the Ex when the Fangs owned the paper, and was axed in 2002.) But then it was sold to Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, who has been hell-bent on turning a profit on the Examiner brand. News-ad hybridization just might be his secret sauce.

 
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