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Do Target’s ads affect when newspaper stories run?

In Detroit, a newspaper timed education stories so they could run next to Target ads, at the mega-retailer’s request. Does such coordination happen here?
By David Brauer

Last week, the Wall Street Journal touched off a journalism-world firestorm when it reported the Detroit Free Press scheduled two Sunday education stories at the behest of Minneapolis-based Target Corp. Target wanted its ads to run on the biggest circulation day, next to Free Press education stories.

“Generally, papers make layout decisions within the newsroom, not in connection with ad placements,” the Journal’s Russell Adams dryly noted.

Big Red is a big print spender, and Star Tribune and Pioneer Press have already proven willing to bust up page layouts for more eye-catching ads.

Actually timing stories to ads is a big slide down the slippery slope. Sure, newspapers have long run “special sections,” blatant blends of stories and ads that are (not always loudly) labeled “advertisements.” But the news sections are supposed to be independent of advertiser influence, even if skeptics will always have their doubts.

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Detroit is a struggling city with struggling papers — so much so that the Free Press and News no longer home deliver most weekdays and Saturday. Our local papers aren’t struggling quite that much, but Target’s influence is arguably more massive here.

So have the hometown papers bent similarly to the hometown mega-retailer’s will?

No, say Star Tribune and Pioneer Press officials. That, in fact, was Strib spokesman Ben Taylor’s one-word response. PiPress editor Thom Fladung says he’s not done stories “on specific days or changed the days we would do them at an advertiser’s request.”

In the next breath, Fladung, a former Freep managing editor, cautions against making too much of his former paper’s move.

“When the hell would the Free Press run such stories on education?” Fladung asks. “They only deliver to homes, as you know, on Sundays, Thursdays and Fridays. Their Sunday circulation dwarfs all other days — and female readership (i.e. moms) is far and away the strongest on Sundays. So, I’ll repeat: When in the hell would you schedule such stories?

“I smell a non-issue here. Or another example of the newspaper industry doing stories about itself that make us look wholly uneducated…about ourselves…”

This is a risk I take daily. To Fladung’s first point, I can certainly see some savvy editor “giving” the ad staff something that was going to happen anyway.

Paul Anger, the Freep editor in question, has criticized the Journal’s story as “inaccurate.” In a letter, he does make it seem like he was giving away not much at all in the Target case:

“The retailer specifically wanted to advertise on Sept. 20 and 27 — consecutive Sundays — because those are our widest circulation days. The ad folks checked with the newsroom, which predictably did have stories planned in September as the school year started. We did tell our ad folks that barring big news developments that could change our priorities, we could run stories on the 20th and 27th.

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“Target was not in contact with the editor and publisher of the Free Press, nor anyone else in the Free Press newsroom. And nobody from the Free Press newsroom ‘relayed to Target,’ as suggested in the article, ‘the stories the paper had planned.’ Decisions about what’s contained in our stories reside solely in the newsroom. We do not share that information with advertisers.”

I tried to ask Target last week how often it attempts to yoke ad placement to news content. After a couple of discussions with spokesfolk, I never got an answer.