The Thomas Meaghar Bar is as lively as its namesake, says the headline of this news item in the Missoulian about a new bar downtown. Its namesake died 150 years ago, but whatever. The important thing is that it’s lively—or it will be, once people start coming. “I don’t think everybody knows that we’re completely open,” manager Cory Champney says. He is the only source in this 800-word article about a local business, which makes it less a news story and more an advertorial.
My record will indicate that I despise reportage as a variety of work, but you have to have at least two sources for a news story.1 Otherwise, you’re just letting one guy disseminate his opinion with the help of your staff writer. That’s not news. It’s editorial—or, when it’s about a local business, advertorial.
Before the sole function of journalism became doing whatever it took to keep printing the newspaper, such stories were considered unethical. You don’t want your paper to become a propaganda organ for local businesses, because readers are smart. They will notice if your “news” is frequently about how everyone loves eating at certain restaurants and shopping at certain stores, and they will switch to a different paper.
That’s what they used to do, anyway, back when towns had more than one newspaper. But massive consolidation of the industry took care of that. The Missoulian is owned by Lee Enterprises, which owns 54 daily papers in 23 states. Lee’s editorial policy emphasizes what it calls “retail” coverage, which seems to amount to puff pieces for local businesses.
Consider the Missoulian’s exposé from last May, Cabela’s, packing everything an outdoor family could want, prepares for June 12 opening—one of eight stories the Missoulian ran on the new store. Unlike the Meagher Bar story, this one has three sources: retail marketing manager Danny Noonan, “communication specialist from the Cabela’s corporate office” Nathan Borowski, and weekend employee Chris Nelson. Breaking: Cabela’s is great, people paid by Cabela’s say.
The problem with this kind of coverage is that it encourages readers to wonder who else is paid by Cabela’s, so to speak. Meagher Bar has the same owners as the bar previously in that location, Sean Kelly’s, which advertised heavily in the Missoulian. Cabela’s is a Missoulian advertising client, too. When a reader sees breathless stories about how wonderful certain businesses are alongside explicit advertising for the same places, he starts to wonder if the paper’s editorial policy is for sale.
These issues matter, particularly when an increasing number of markets are served by single dailies. If the Missoulian consistently wrote laudatory, single-source “news” stories about particular elected officials and political factions, we would quickly cry propaganda. For the paper to do the same thing on behalf of businesses is a distinction without difference.
Arguably, it’s worse. At least propaganda operates on behalf of an ideology and not merely ad revenue. If the Missoulian can’t stay in business without fobbing off advertisements as news, maybe it should become a website. Most of us venerate print newspapers, but we are venerating the tradition of ethical journalism they represent. The practice of pulping trees and inking words on them is not what made the American newspaper great.