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The Herald’s news reporting on Northern Pulp Mill looks like a packaged advertising deal

Last Thursday, I wrote about the latest Chronicle Herald advertorial:

"And then there’s advertising disguised as news stories — “advertorial.”

Apparently, after the PR disaster of shutting down a book signing by Joan Baxter, author of “The Mill,” Northern Pulp mills feels it needs to buy some positive PR. Yesterday, the Chronicle Herald published a piece of “sponsored content” — sponsored by Northern Pulp — responding to environmental critics of the mill.

I don’t know if the average reader understands what “sponsored content” is, but Northern Pulp and the Chronicle Herald must think they’re pulling the wool over at least some readers’ eyes, because otherwise they’d simply call it “advertising,” right?"

Again, this isn’t journalism. It’s a disservice to readers.

The “sponsored content” was an “article” headlined “Bleached Kraft Mills cannot be Closed Loop.” That article shows up in Google News searches as actual news, so the Herald evidently made no effort to keep it out of its normal news feed to Google.

Since then, there’s been a remarkable series of articles written by real reporters profiling the mill and its operations published in the Herald and the Saltwire-owned New Glasgow News (Saltwire is the parent company to both the Herald and the News).

The series started on Saturday, when the Herald and News published a piece by veteran Herald reporter Aaron Beswick headlined in the Herald as “The inner workings of the Northern Pulp kraft mill.” Beswick writes:

"Since opening in 1967, Northern Pulp has been both a source of economic activity and controversy in Pictou County. Both will be addressed by this series over the coming days as it attempts to lay out the facts in black and white to inform an important discussion about the mill’s role and future in this province.

But beyond the headlines Northern Pulp is also a community of 339 Nova Scotians who make 270,000 tonnes of kraft pulp annually."

Now, it makes sense for journalists to cover a major corporation in a small town, especially when there are important resource and environmental issues at play. That’s a proper subject for journalistic investigation. In her article “Dirty Dealing,” for instance, Halifax Examiner contributor Linda Pannozzo covered the potential effects on the Northumberland Strait lobster fishery presented by a new plan to dispose of Northern Pulp effluent.

But with Saltwire’s Northern Pulp series coming right at the heels of “sponsored content” in the Herald, disguised as news and paid for by Northern Pulp, we’ve got to examine motives.

Was the idea for the series arrived at independently by newsroom journalists, or did Herald management direct the newsroom to cover Northern Pulp as part of a package sales deal with Northern Pulp?

I asked Beswick for comment and he hasn’t responded. So I can’t speak to motivations, but I can speak to content. I don’t know if it’s by design, authorship, or through editing, but Beswick’s article strikes me as PR Lite — it is basically a series of uncritical profiles of mill employees and how they do their jobs. The article does include a bit of information about environmental complaints over the mill operation, but that information is not detailed and it appears very far down in the article

That’s followed today by an article by News reporter Sam Macdonald, headlined “Here’s how Northern Pulp says its effluent treatment plan would work” [Update: according to Linda Pannozzo, the original headline on the article was “After years of controversy, Northern Pulp is cleaning up it’s act.”] As with Beswick’s article, contrary views are not detailed and appear very far down in the article — in the last two paragraphs of of a 24-paragraph article — only to be dismissed in the closing sentence:

"The pipeline has been under fire by local environmentalists and members of the fishing community, who are concerned about the impact of what will come out of the line. Protests have been held in the past few months to express opposition to the project.

Some opponents have called for a closed-loop system in which all effluent waste would be cleaned and reused in the plant, basically eliminating the need for the pipeline. However, both the mill and experts experienced with this type of bleached kraft pulp method have indicated a closed loop system would not work due to the process."

Who knows? Maybe the two reporters had no marching orders from management and each decided to write an uncritical article about mill operations. That happens. But it’s impossible to separate the mill’s purchase of sponsored content from the reporting. It sure looks like a package deal.

This is the problem with “sponsored content” and advertorial: Once you’ve decided to turn the news pages of your publication over to advertisers, even honest news coverage becomes suspect.

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