SMH – Independent? Always?

SMH_frontPageWhat does it mean when the Sydney Morning Herald, a newspaper that pushes the line ‘Independent. Always.’, devotes it’s front page to an ad for the world’s leading luxury car maker? 

Has the paper in question sold out? Are the folks in control not aware of the inherent contradiction this represents? Do readers not care about sponsorship dollars affecting editorial freedom? Or can advertisers wealthy enough to buy the front page of the nation’s third-most-popular rag actually be trusted to stay out of editorial decisions? (ha!)

I’m sure the first three are all accurate. The fourth is pure fantasy.

Why else would a paper undergoing fundamental structural upheaval introduce a product (the full page wrap-around advertiser supplement) which almost entirely devote’s its brand to that of another company? Why else would a line stated with such authoritative tone (note the full stop between ‘Independent’ and ‘Always’.) sit above what is essentially a complete capitulation for the corporate dollar over editorial content? And why else would a paper carry on with this now-common practice if the readership wasn’t happy enough to continue, well, reading?

It’s a huge shift in the way media companies present their corporate sponsors. While advertising has always been a fundamental part of the paper business, it has never been the front runner for catching the reader’s eye, or at least – taking advantage of it for purely financial reasons. Papers of the past would never have been so obvious about using their front page as billboard space for the dollar, and to be seen to capitulate to the sponsor would be unheard of.

But these days, a comfortable, and very healthy, relationship with the sponsor is not the elephant in the room it used to be; that creature we used to ignore is now a part of the conversation; a welcome guest, and one which may be just one spot from the head of the table. It might even be feeding Dad stories, if you want to continue the metaphor…and that ‘might’ is what we should be worried about.

The relationship between advertiser and editorial is one which, it’s assumed and believed by many, should not be crossed. To remove this barrier is to forfeit editorial independence, which impinges on free thought, by allowing corporate sponsors to ‘vote’ in the choice of editorial story-line the paper chooses to follow.

In this example, how would Mercedes feel if SMH decided to follow their wrap-around with a feature on the falling relevance of multi-national auto makers in an environment of micro manufacturing and development, just for example? Probably not too happy. And the editorial team would know this. So, following the age-old principles of supply and demand, the editorial team would not choose that story to run. Editorial independence compromised on day one.

And to think that this wouldn’t happen, and wouldn’t become a fundamental part of a paper’s MO, is crazy. That’d be like hoping the elephant charging you from across the jungle (or room) isn’t going to cause you any damage, because that would be morally wrong, and a modern elephant, even one defending its family, would never revert to such prehistoric tactics.

Bullshit. That elephant is going to trample your face into the dirt, because that’s what it does, and it doesn’t care that you’re going to spend the rest of your year drinking through a catheter.

Mercedes, in this case, is the elephant. It’s a giant multinational which has a board, and their role is to return as efficiently as possible on each investor dollar, whatever it takes. That includes affecting the media, and thereby its message to you, the consumer. If that means using its power to make sure you don’t harbor any grudges or feelings of discontent towards its brand, then so be it. That’s what the marketing department is paid for, right?

So to see an advertiser wrapping its image (and little more) around the front of a paper is nothing surprising. It’s just an elephant defending its turf.

But to see a once-great mast-head reduced so grovelling at your feet for a few measly coins?

Well, that’s just a dying shame.

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