This week's Stranger has two stories about the 5th Avenue buying a year's worth of editorial coverage on KING 5 teevee and renting it out to other arts groups.

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The first piece is a news story about the arrangement (a furniture company and a fertility clinic have similar pay-for-play contracts with a KING daytime show, and health-care providers like Children's Hospital "sponsor" health-news segments on the evening news):

Unlike a TV commercial or an advertisement in a newspaper, New Day's bought-and-paid-for segments appear identical to any other segment on the show... "Eventually, that will ruin the newsroom's credibility," she [a journalism ethics expert at the Poynter Institute] said. "An audience comes to you because they believe you can curate information and help them sort through it. When you turn over even just a portion of your time and space to someone else and you don't make it clear that you've turned it over, you've betrayed a trust."

The second piece is a column lamenting my idiocy for giving away years of free theater coverage when I could've followed KING's lead and retired early.

Just a few minutes ago, John Longenbaugh, a p.r. person for the 5th Avenue, sent me an email expressing his displeasure about the two stories and the way he was quoted. Here's John in the news story:

But even people involved in the pay-for-play arrangement criticize New Day for not being transparent enough. "When people are watching, they don't make that distinction," admitted John Longenbaugh, PR manager for the 5th Avenue Theatre. "They don't necessarily see or know that we're putting money into something that's made to look like a spontaneous bit of journalism."

And here's John in the column:

I called some theater PR people and made my proposition. Rardin at ACT hedged at first: "I'm kind of old-school: Editorial is editorial and advertising is advertising." But she said she'd consider it. John Longenbaugh at 5th Avenue said that if he couldn't convince me to cover his theater for free, "that wouldn't necessarily be the end of the conversation."

And here's John in his letter of complaint:

We’ve approached this project seeking transparency from the beginning, and I believe that our prominent acknowledgement of this in New Day’s credits is fair and reasonable. You might prefer flashing lights saying “PAID PROGRAMMING” to crawl beneath each arts interview, but really, who does this serve? Are viewers being “duped” if they see artists talking about their art, whether or not it’s a paid segment? Is an interview with Seattle Symphony’s Gerard Schwarz about Leonard Bernstein and cuts to musical education in local schools equivalent to an infomercial about a new juicer?

It's closing time here at Yellow Journalism Central and, like good reporters everywhere, I've got some drinking to do. But briefly: No, John. A interview with Gerry Schwarz disguised to look like editorial content is not equivalent to an infomercial—an infomerical is more honest.

As I've said over and over again, I like arts coverage. (Obviously—it's what I do for a living.) But I don't like media outlets that sell off their content and fool viewers into thinking it's an editorial choice, no matter what the subject matter. There's a word for that: lying.

Today it's a little arts coverage (and furniture and reproductive therapy for their target demographic of women who are at home in the middle of the day)—tomorrow, who knows? I don't trust KING executives to always sell off their content for a virtuous cause.

Longenbaugh's full letter is below the jump.

Enjoy.

Dear Brendan:

Both David Armstrong and I are disappointed that your article and column this week contained misleading quotes from us. In your article the half-hour conversation you had with him and the two shorter conversations with me have been reduced to three short quotes that misstate our positions. (Your earlier blog posting at least contained more of my quotes about The 5th’s determination to make our New Day slot available to other local arts groups regardless of whether or not they were able to help defray the cost of our commitment.)

In your column where you jokingly suggest The Stranger should change its coverage to “pay for play,” you’ll recall that my response to your proposal was to say that if that was the case, I’d transfer you to our marketing department—where the conversation might continue. (your “half quote” misrepresents what I said.) As a PR manager, my job is to convince media that they should be covering us for free, a task that’s getting more difficult all the time, due to radical upheavals in traditional and new media. But my colleagues in the marketing department have a budget, and that budget goes to billboards, bus boards, print ads, and TV and radio ads—and to KING 5 for our weekly segment on New Day.

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, and there ain’t no such thing, at this point anyway, as unsubsidized media, even when that media occasionally covers the arts gratis. Commercial television relies on commercials—air time purchased for promotion. Public TV and radio rely on grants and donations. And electronic and print media like The Stranger rely on advertising— if Seattle’s arts groups didn’t buy ads in your paper, I assume you wouldn’t have a job. This doesn’t mean that when we buy an ad in your paper we expect a lengthy preview or a great review. Frequently (as with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, White Christmas, and Legally Blonde this season) we don’t get any review from The Stranger. But we continue to advertise with your paper because as flawed and imperfect as our relationship might be, it’s still one that we believe in.

Although you’re joking, it’d be interesting to see if a pay-for-play model might improve the consistency of your theatre coverage. Would it mean that The Stranger was guaranteed to preview and review every one of our shows instead of only occasionally sending a reviewer? Would you respond more rapidly and efficiently when I tell you when our shows are not included in your theatre listings? If we were to pay a weekly sum to your paper, would it mean that the column inches you dedicated to this story this week would cover productions at Stone Soup, Seattle Shakespeare, Second Story Repertory and Seattle Children’s Theatre, all of whom have shows currently running and none of which you’ve reviewed or previewed? (As I’ve noted, the majority of segments on New Day aren’t about The 5th at all, but are held for other arts groups.)

We’ve approached this project seeking transparency from the beginning, and I believe that our prominent acknowledgement of this in New Day’s credits is fair and reasonable. You might prefer flashing lights saying “PAID PROGRAMMING” to crawl beneath each arts interview, but really, who does this serve? Are viewers being “duped” if they see artists talking about their art, whether or not it’s a paid segment? Is an interview with Seattle Symphony’s Gerard Schwarz about Leonard Bernstein and cuts to musical education in local schools equivalent to an infomercial about a new juicer?

For us New Day is a marketing initiative, not a PR initiative, and we’ve never pretended it was anything else. As David said to you, while we get the occasional coverage from local television, it’s frankly inconceivable that we could have a WEEKLY segment of 8-12 minutes on TV without something like this taking place. We’re buying air time—but what we do with that air time I would gladly compare to any other arts coverage offered on local television.

And one last note: your comparison of this issue to the Bush administration planting positive news stories in Iraqi media is frankly ridiculous. It inflates this issue to one of national importance and trivializes the severity of this country’s involvement in Iraq.

Best,

John Longenbaugh
PR Manager, 5th Avenue Theatre
1308 5th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101