Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of thirteen books, including the bestselling Nickel and Dimed. This article is also published in her blog.
Would you like to buy this blog? Thousands, maybe tens of thousands–many of them actually solvent–read it every week, making it an ideal place to promote your brand or company. The idea is simple: You give me money in the high four-figure range and you get your company name at the bottom of the page. Maybe you’d like a pop-up too? No problem. Naturally, as an honorable journalist, I will retain complete and utter independence and the right to say whatever I want, whenever I want… until, of course, I tire of cashing those high four-figure-range checks.
Something like this just happened at the Philadelphia Inquirer. The venerable old paper is about to start running a new column called PhillyInc., which will be sponsored by Citizens Bank. Got that? An editorial column sponsored by a bank and festooned with the bank’s logo and ads. William K. Marimow, the Inquirer’s editor, admits that, “instinctively, as a reporter, I would have recoiled at the idea.” But he has “come to terms with it,” the New York Times reports, and promises that the editorial staff will maintain “complete, independent control” of the column’s content.
Sure. I’ve been a columnist in one place or another for three decades, and I know that advertisers don’t have to own the column to exert censorship. A few years back, as a columnist for a national magazine, I wrote a piece about direct-to-consumer drug advertising, leading off with a description of the Claritin commercials: blue skies, flowers, and the instruction to ask your physician about this wonder product. The column, which I will admit was a tad sarcastic, was rejected without intelligible explanation. At least there was no explanation until I saw the magazine’s next issue, which featured a two-page advertisement for Claritin.
And note: My column was not called the Schering-Plough Healthcare Products Inc. Column. It would have been separated by many pages from the Claritin ad. But that apparently wasn’t far enough. As Gloria Steinem reported in 1990, advertisers can be very finicky about the editorial content that might appear in the same magazine as their ads. Ms. magazine ran into trouble because it often contained the dangerously upsetting word “lesbian.”
We all know that newspapers–and news magazines–are in trouble. Advertising revenues are falling, as is circulation, and the corporate owners of news outlets see them as “profit centers,” not public services. How much profit? Well, the Los Angeles Times was raking in a profit of 20 percent, which is more than most Fortune 500 companies, when it went through one of its recent bloodbaths, with the top editor axed for refusing to fire more reporters. So the papers cut international news and devote more and more editorial space to thinly veiled advertising for things you don’t need and can’t afford anyway–spas, travel, fashion, dining, home decorating–all of which attract pages of real ads.
But company-sponsored newspaper columns bring us to a new low. What next: The Wal-Mart column on social class in America? The Phillip Morris column on health issues? Remington bringing us essays on school violence? And will columnists be required, as a condition of employment, to find their own corporate sponsors, as in all those great nonprofit jobs you can have if you just do the fundraising to pay your own salary?
Somewhere out there must be a corporation that will sponsor me. Citizens Bank, for example: I can even promise you subtle forms of product placement, as in the sentence, “Citizens screwed by high bank ATM fees.”