In One-Newspaper Town, Star-Advertiser Confuses Advertising and News

People in Hawaii love to eat.

One sign of that is the 28-page "Dining Out" section in last Sunday's Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

The paper calls it "Oahu's answer to your appetite."

What it doesn't tell you very prominently is that all the content in the newspaper section is bought and paid for. While in its "Hawaii Renovation" section, the paper labels every second page (and the front page), "An advertising section published by Oahu Publications, Inc.," it doesn't do the same for the "Dining Out" section. It just runs a box on Page 2 with the names of the editor, sales manager and special sections editor. That box explains, "Dining Out is a weekly advertising supplement published by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser."

It's not obvious from looking at the section that it's an advertising supplement because the paper doesn't label it as such, although the standard practice for newspapers is that any advertising section be clearly labeled on every page.

The confusion persists in the way the section is presented in ads in the pages of the newspaper.

One colorful ad Sunday called the section, "Dining Out, your go-to guide for everything about dining in Hawaii." Maybe. If all you want is positive news about restaurants, without the paper's restaurant critic weighing in. The paper's ad describes the section as including "restaurant reviews and recommendations, what's new in the dining scene, and Hawaii's source for restaurant coupons and special advertisements."

That ad, written for readers, includes no mention that the section is an advertising section. An advertising section means the advertiser pays for "editorial" coverage, which is invariably flattering. What kind of review is that?

The other ad, written to encourage businesses to advertise in the section, also doesn't mention that the section is an advertising section. It says that "one dining out ad reaches more Oahu restaurant customers than an entire week of programming on any radio station." What the ad only tells prospective advertisers in small print is that the numbers the paper is using for readership are for the entire reach of the former Sunday Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin. The problem with that is it doesn't state how many people actually read the section. After all, it's in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Trust me, as a former newspaper editor and publisher, not everybody who reads the Star-Advertiser reads that section. It's not a fair comparison. Most people who buy the paper probably don't read the section, especially because they can tell that the "articles" don't have have integrity.

I thought it was worth exploring this after reading Larry Geller's blog, Disappeared News, in which he describes being confused about whether an article was news or an advertisement.

He described an article on the same Sunday at the top of the "Hawaii's Homes" section, with the headline "New Website Includes More Properties For Sale than MLS." The article reads like the "articles" in the "Dining Out" section. Take this sentence for example: "Prudential Locations just revamped its website, PrudentialLocations.com, and it's more sophisticated than ever." Geller correctly states that the article should be labeled "Paid Advertisement" at the top or "anywhere."

What readers will see, in a line below the ad, is this sentence: "Space for this report sponsored by Prudential Locations updating you about Oahu's real estate and mortgage market."

Actually, it's not just the space the advertiser is paying for. It's a promise of a certain type of tone to the content, the same tone you'll find in the "Dining Out" section.

There's nothing wrong with letting advertisers have their say. They have free speech rights, too. We know that one of the biggest reasons people read newspapers is for the ads.

But a newspaper that tells politicians they need to be transparent should follow its own advice when it comes to making clear the difference between news and advertising.

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