The Denver Post has two energy sections these days, but one isn’t like the other.
The paper’s “Energy/Mining” section runs stories from Denver Post reporters and the Associated Press on local energy issues. The “Energy and Environment” section, which was created in February, runs what at first glance appear to be similar stories, but with one catch: the section is funded by Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED), a pro-natural gas group, and stories are written by outside writers.
The Post makes clear on the Energy and Environment page that the section is sponsored by CRED; a banner across the top of the section reads “This Section is Sponsored by CRED” and the section also has a “Sponsored by CRED” disclaimer under its name in the drop-down menu for newspaper sections.
But some Coloradans aren’t happy about the section. Its existence, they say, raises questions about sponsored content and how readers respond to it — whether they’ll be confused by two distinct energy sections, which could have the potential for conflicting content, or whether they see the banner disclaimer overhead and take the content for the advertising it is.
“The way that it comes off to readers is that it’s actually written by the Denver Post reporters and that it’s backed by the Denver Post in the way that any other article would be,” said Catherine Collentine, Colorado campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Natural Gas campaign. “Advertising is a part of journalism, but this seems to have overstepped those bounds, and just basically taken things too far.”
Collentine, who lives in Denver, said she relies on the Denver Post for local news on oil and gas development in Colorado, and she said she thinks the sponsored content’s similarity to the rest of the news website could confuse readers. That’s something Jessica Goad, advocacy director at the Center for Western Priorities and formerly of the Center for American Progress, also worries about.
“What is particularly interesting about this ad is that it mimics the Denver Post’s energy section,” Goad said. “Considering that the font, the layout, everything looks just like the Denver Post, I think that there’s no doubt that a lot of readers could be misled.”
The Center for Western Priorities has been following CRED since the natural gas organization was founded in September 2013 by Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and Noble Energy, two major oil and gas companies operating in the western U.S. CRED’s aim is to educate Coloradans on oil and gas drilling, but from a pro-natural gas standpoint. CRED has been running TV and radio advertising in Colorado since it was founded, lauding the “environmentally-safe process called fracking” which creates “jobs for Colorado” and boosts “our energy independence.”
“For a group that’s designed to educate people about drilling, it seems like there are more straightforward ways to do that than sponsoring an advertising section that’s made to look like real journalism and real reporting,” Goad said.
CRED spokesman Jon Haubert told ThinkProgress that the organization got the idea for the sponsored section based on similar sponsored sections in news outlets. He also said that while the paper’s wide distribution was a “natural fit” for CRED’s educational campaign, the Energy and Environment section isn’t exclusive to CRED and could be sponsored by other groups in the future. He also said that though advertising has been a part of newspapers and news organizations for decades, it’s up to each publication to properly label its sponsored content.
Haubert said CRED sends story ideas to the Denver Post’s advertising department, and also accepts ideas that the advertising department comes up with. The department then assigns stories to freelance writers, who Haubert says CRED does not contact during the writing process.
“I hear lots of stories that never make it into the news — companies who do great environmental work, community/charitable giving, innovative technologies no one has heard of, etc.” Haubert said in an email. “The insert is a supplement and that’s how we think of it…to add to the dialogue, not compete against what’s out there.”
A former Denver Post staffer who asked not to be named told ThinkProgress that he was conflicted about the sponsored section. On the one hand, he said, newspapers have to make money in an online market, where banner ads don’t always make up for the loss in traditional print ads. On the other hand, he said he was worried readers would be confused by the two energy sections.
“If I weren’t a journalist, I’m not sure I could tell the difference here,” he said of the sponsored section. “It’s more than a little troubling … I still think it kind of masquerades as ‘real news content’ when it’s not.”
The Denver Post has a disclaimer on its Energy and Environment section: under a small banner reading “What is sponsored content?” the paper makes clear that the articles were produced by the advertising department in collaboration with CRED and that “this publication’s editorial staff had no role in its preparation.” It goes on to state that the Post strives to ensure that the “treatment and design of all advertising and Sponsored Content is clearly differentiated from editorial content.” The Post’s editor, Greg Moore, declined to comment on the section.
The Future of Journalism?
The Post’s advertising section may have ruffled a few feathers in Colorado, but the paper is hardly the first news organization to have stories, or even entire sections, sponsored by outside advertisers. Congressional news organization Roll Call has two sponsored sections — a Boeing-sponsored defense section and, similar to the Denver Post, an energy section sponsored by BP.
The Atlantic’s sponsored content caused a stir last year, when the website posted a sponsored story about the church of Scientology. The story was later taken down after readers and other news outlets took notice, and the Atlantic issued an apology for posting the sponsored content. The New York Times, Time, BuzzFeed and TPM have also ventured into sponsored content.
And while one of the major concerns of news organizations and advocacy groups is whether or not readers will recognize sponsored content as advertising, Kelly McBride, senior faculty member for ethics at the Poynter Institute, told ThinkProgress that not much is known yet about how readers respond to sponsored content.
“Clearly news organizations have got to find new sources of revenue, and I think sponsored content is a stream of revenue many news organizations are turning towards,” she said. “We don’t know much about how consumers perceive sponsored content — we haven’t seen many good studies yet.”
Joshua Benton, director of Harvard’s Nieman Lab, told ThinkProgress via email that while he knows of many examples of sponsored content in national news organizations, he hasn’t seen as many examples like the Denver Post’s, at local news outlets.
“Most of what we’ve seen like this has been at national outlets, particularly those that appeal to an industry audience,” he said. “I’m unaware of any examples of a sponsored section at a local news outlet. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist — I just haven’t come across one.”
McBride also said she didn’t know how common the practice was at local newspapers or online news organizations, but said she did know most of the newspapers she’s talked to about sponsored content are committed to publishing the content responsibly.
“If you consider the broad swath of sponsored content, yes, there are clearly ethical issues that need to be addressed, and transparency is the biggest one of them, and independence of the news organization is another one,” she said. “Most of the news organizations that I have encountered — which is a lot — seem very open to establishing healthy processes that will allow them to find a stream of revenue, preserve their credibility, and maintain a relationship with their audience that is based on transparency.”
But maintaining transparency is something the former Denver Post staffer worries the paper isn’t doing successfully with its sponsored content.
“I go back to the way in which non-editorial material used to be identified in printed pages of the newspaper — that was different type fonts, different look, everything different so that you know that it’s advertising,” he said. “Clearly, that’s not done here.”