Editor's Notes

Comes with video

On Sunday, the Honolulu Advertiser featured what looked like two front pages, including a fold-over section–the industry term is a “spadea”–featuring a big report on statehood. Above the fold was the headline “Statehood: The Next Fifty Years,” and underneath a photo collage was the main story, titled “Survey says: Statehood has been positive.”

The story itself is a straightforward rundown of some of pollster John Zogby’s findings about how Hawaii residents view our state. It looked like an artfully designed front page, complete with the paper’s banner, the date, teasers pointing to inside content: the works.

There were a couple of clues that something unusual was afoot with Sunday’s Advertiser, but you had to be a pretty close reader of newspapers to pick them out.

For one thing, although the story didn’t say so, Zogby’s polling had been conducted and released months ago–no news there.

More interesting was that underneath the author’s byline, where close readers would expect to see words along the lines of “Advertiser staff reporter,” was the phrase “Custom Publishing Group.”

Custom publishing is a relatively new phrase in the lexicon of the newspaper business, but it’s an important one. As publishers have struggled to find new business models to stay afloat, custom publishing has become a lifeline for many.

But what is it? According to the Custom Publishing Council, a trade association, it breaks down like this:

“Custom publishing marries the marketing ambitions of a company with the information needs of its target audience. This occurs through the delivery of editorial content–via print, Internet, and other media–so intrinsically valuable that it moves the recipient’s behavior in a desired direction.”

Too Orwellian for you? Try this, from the Web site of one company in the business: “Custom media is long-form, journalistic communication that is paid for by the advertiser.”

So the Advertiser ran advertising copy on the front of its Sunday edition. Troubling though that is, editor Mark Platte told me Tuesday–he wanted it clear that the editorial staff had nothing to do with the section–that the Advertiser has run these sections before. What made Sunday’s case different was that it looked like a story package that the Advertiser would normally run. If this was advertising, what exactly were they selling?

The goods

Again, at first glance, it was hard to tell. Inside was another, much longer story, called “Hawaii 2060: Looking Ahead to the Future of our State.” It included quotes from a number of state officials and others about the economic, industrial, environmental and educational future of Hawaii. Sprinkled throughout the layout of the five-column story were a few small corporate logos: Hawaiian Electric Industries. Tesoro. Starwood Hotels and Resorts. Honu Group. First Hawaiian Bank.

In other words, what was for sale on what appeared to be the front page of Sunday’s Honolulu Advertiser was the official State version of the challenges facing Hawaii and a rundown of solutions to those challenges, all presented with literal stamps of approval from some of the most powerful companies in the state.

When “custom, journalistic communication” is paid for by a car or resort company, it’s called “advertorial” or just plain advertising. When the client is a consortium of the State and the biggest corporations in town, and the product is a way of thinking about the state itself, it’s called propaganda.

Never mind that the word calls to mind giant posters of Josef Stalin. Never mind that the propaganda in question doesn’t hit you over the head with salacious, screaming headlines. Whether you agree with it or not, the representation of statehood in Sunday’s Advertiser was propaganda all the same.

Why does it matter?

Sunday’s front section offers a lesson in what can happen when a newspaper prints paid political advertising that is virtually indistinguishable to the average reader from independent reporting. On the page facing “Hawaii 2060,” the section features a full-page layout called “The Road to Statehood: Timeline of Events.”

According to Sunday’s Advertiser, that road started on June 14, 1900, with the formalization of Hawaii’s status as a United States Territory.

What happened before that? The Advertiser’s timeline suggests that whatever it was, it obviously wasn’t very important. Maybe way back in ye olde ancient times some islands sprung up out of the ocean, and then some people showed up and then, well, who knows, really, these were ancient times with ancestors and stuff and then–bam!–it’s 1900 and we’re a United States territory and now a survey says we’re happy about it.

If you think that’s anything like an honest rendering of Hawaii’s road to statehood, you’ve been reading too much custom publishing.

In a great irony, Sunday’s section is a perfect mirror for the statehood plebiscite itself, in which residents were asked to choose between territorial status and statehood. Nationhood–not just Hawaiian self-determination but the Hawaiian nation itself–was off the table in 1959. On Sunday, the Advertiser took it off the page.

This is dangerous stuff. There’s a place for political agendas in the newspaper. Columns like this one, clearly labeled opinion pieces and advertisements all serve the public interest, or attempt to, in various ways. But when state’s biggest paper teams up with its most powerful companies and the government to put a political message on the front page, that’s a clear violation of its readers’ trust.