Jim Kenyon: Selling Off An Estate

Although there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, I believe the demise of the newspaper industry is greatly exaggerated. I’m pretty sure this Internet stuff is just a fad.

The obsession with tweeting and blogging can’t last. People will eventually go back to reading daily newspapers that they can wrap fish in and clean windows with. To celebrate the coming rebirth of daily newspapers, I will load up my Chevy Vega and embark on a sightseeing trip to the Old Man of the Mountain.

Until that day arrives, though, newspapers will continue to look for ways — or perhaps, schemes — to improve the bottom line. Which brings me to the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state’s largest daily, with a circulation of 42,000.

The Union Leader is selling its columnists. By that I mean, some of the Manchester-based paper’s columnists have sponsors. Sort of like a NASCAR driver, or a pro golfer. An advertiser can pay to have his or her business’s name, phone number and website address attached to a particular columnist.

On Thursdays, when readers pick up the Union Leader to find out what local news columnist Mark Hayward has to say in “City Matters,” they also see that he’s “sponsored by” Tri State Kitchens, a kitchen cabinet supplier with showrooms in Nashua and Londonderry.

What in the name of Jimmy Breslin is going on in the Fourth Estate?

A news columnist isn’t supposed to be like a stretch of highway that can be adopted by an advertiser. Maureen Dowd may wear Prada, but The New York Times doesn’t dress up her column with the designer’s logo.

Hayward, whose column appears on the front page or in the state news section, assured me that the wall between the paper’s news and advertising departments hasn’t come down.

“I don’t feel any pressure to mention Tri State Kitchens or write about kitchens in my column,” said Hayward, who has had the sponsor for a couple of months. “I like it because it brings revenue into our cash-starved business.”

If the idea of newspapers resorting to sponsors for its columnists wasn’t depressing enough, I wanted to reach for the Prozac even more after talking with Mike Thibault, the owner of Tri State Kitchens. Thibault told me that he didn’t know the exact amount it cost him to sponsor Hayward’s column, but was pretty sure it was less than $50 a week.

Since advertising rates are often determined by a paper’s circulation, I figure that makes my column worth about $22.50. (I suspect many potential sponsors might argue that it would still be overpriced.)

Talking with Hayward and Thibault did make me feel slightly better about one thing. The two men have never discussed the column. In fact, they’ve never met. Thibault even confessed that he doesn’t read the Union Leader. “But I’ve heard that (Hayward’s) column is well-read,” he said.

It’s difficult to measure in two months whether sponsoring the column has been good for business, said Thibault. The only call he’s received was from a reader who didn’t approve of Hayward’s take on a car crash involving a police officer.

“I told him we just do the advertising,” said Thibault. “We don’t control the articles that Mark writes.”

On Monday, I called Union Leader Publisher Joe McQuaid and the paper’s advertising manager, too, but didn’t hear back.

If the sponsor doesn’t have input into what the columnist is writing — or in some cases, not writing — what’s the big deal?

I figured Kelly McBride, who is on the faculty at Poynter, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., would be a good person to ask. According to Poynter’s website, McBride is “one of the country’s leading voices when it comes media ethics.”

As I briefed McBride on what the Union Leader was doing, I waited for her outrage to spill out. I’m still waiting.

“Welcome to the New Age,” she told me, adding that having a sponsor for a local columnist “makes a lot of sense.”

In other media, “this is not a foreign concept,” McBride said. A good example being NPR. Although they don’t have a say in what NPR broadcasts, sponsors are happy with just the “halo effect,” she said. “Sponsors don’t get any real advertising benefit, but they get association with a brand that is really cool and smart.”

Problems can arise, however, when the line between news and advertising is blurred, she said. Some local TV stations that air “healthy living” segments sponsored by physicians and medical centers bear particular watching — and not just by viewers. Sometimes, the sponsors are involved in picking the topics and are interviewed for the segments, as well.

“That’s putting sponsors ahead of the audience,” said McBride.

But apparently sponsors are here to stay. She implied that my holier-than attitude about mixing news and advertising was “not a luxury” that newspapers could maintain.

“You are remembering a time when revenues were strong and newspapers didn’t necessarily have to be creative when looking for new sources of revenue.

“If you want me to say it, I will,” McBride said with a short laugh. “You’re a dinosaur.”

She wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. But if, heaven forbid, this paper ever started to peddle sponsorships, I could be in good shape.

Dinosaurs are wildly popular at the Montshire Museum of Science.