Wick Communications

Be careful with sponsorships

In journalism on October 15, 2010 at 8:02 am

OK, I know where New Hampshire Union Leader Publisher Joe McQuaid is coming from. Times are tough and if someone offers to send you overseas to cover local boys at war, it’s tempting. It’s also a bad idea.

McQuaid and a photographer went to Afghanistan to cover a local National Guard troop. He was fairly transparent about the fact that the newspaper wouldn’t have been able to swing it if not for generous payments from a trio of New Hampshire companies, including a defense contractor. That should have given the veteran newsman pause. But when the newspaper wrote a cheering editorial extolling the virtues of said defense contractor, well, the newspaper had clearly jumped the rails.

McQuaid has gotten a ton of heat for accepting a free trip to Afghanistan. The Newspaper Guild wrote that it wasn’t a good idea. A number of journalism blogs cried foul before this one. And dozens of commenters on the newspaper’s own Web site have complained. Making matters worse, McQuaid has dug in like the soldiers he is covering. He called complainers among his own readership “moronic.” Oh dear…

The most thoughtful analysis I have seen came from David Cay Johnston on Romenesko. He remembered E.B. White’s debate with a Maine newspaper over a similar concept many years ago. If E.B. White was ever wrong about anything, I don’t recall it. He was definitely right on that occasion.

Cutting deals for sponsorships should give you pause. There are valid opportunities to tie advertising to particular projects. Weigh the amount of money at stake against the risks of alienating readers. Consider whether there are other ways to accomplish your goals. Make sure the sponsors understand they don’t control content. And be upfront with readers about the deal. Understand there is a difference between sponsoring hard news and soft features. Give such deals a lot of thought before putting your credibility on the line.

— Clay

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  1. White wrote TO a Maine newspaper; the dispute involved Esquire magazine.

  2. Thanks for the clarification/correction, David. Appreciate it.

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