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July 13th, 2011 WW Editorial Staff | Rogue of the Week
 

The Oregonian

The website of the state’s biggest paper has run paid content masquerading as news.

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Neighborhood Notes is a different kind of online news source. The website features “hyperlocal” news from around Portland. What’s really different, however, is that Neighborhood Notes also charges people to publish their news. For the right price, the site will feature your press release or even write a story about your business or government agency.

The Oregonian, like most journalism organizations, holds itself to a more traditional standard: Sources shouldn’t be able to buy coverage. But, WW has learned, links and excerpts of stories that Neighborhood Notes says are “sponsored” have been routinely ending up on OregonLive.com. And The O hasn’t been telling OregonLive readers this “news” is paid content. 

Failing to tell its readers about prepaid PR masquerading as news earns The O this week’s Rogue.

A bit of background: In April, the daily launched its Oregonian News Network, an online partnership with nine blogs to provide local news on OregonLive. The project got a $50,000 grant from the J-Lab Institute for Interactive Journalism at American University, in turn funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

One of the blog partners is Neighborhood Notes, which charges some users $25 to post an event listing and $75 for a news story. The website editor, Lynnette Fusilier, says it once charged the Port of Portland $600 to have a freelancer write about the agency.

“Shopping your press release or news item to media outlets takes time and often produces disappointing results,” the website says. “Our efficient and affordable process makes sharing your news with Portland neighbors a snap!”

Neighborhood Notes does signal that these items are “sponsored” when you visit the site.

The Oregonian’s website, however, featured many items without telling readers that the subjects had paid for access. About 70 links or excerpts of “sponsored” stories have appeared on OregonLive’s Oregonian News Network page since April 20. 

The paid “sponsored” stories fed to The O’s site include an article on a home-buying seminar by a local credit union (which paid $25), the Northeast Broadway Business Association ($20) and the Port of Portland, which promoted “Portland Harbor, Behind the Scenes Tour: All About Potash” ($25).

The Oregonian News Network’s “Partnership Standard’s [sic] & Practices” say partners must “avoid conflicts of interest” and “distinguish news from advertising.”

Oregonian News Network coordinator Cornelius Swart acknowledges that this arrangement “is something that traditional journalists kind of look at in a questioning way.” But sponsored posts, he says, “are a reality of the blogosphere.”

On Friday, July 8, WW contacted Oregonian Editor Peter Bhatia to ask him about the practice and whether it comported with the daily’s ethical standards. That day, OregonLive stopped showing links to sponsored stories from Neighborhood Notes.

On Monday, Bhatia responded by email to say the practice had ended. “So the questions you ask,” he said, “are moot.” 

 
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