Northern Pulp makes its too-big-to-fail case and I wonder about “Sponsored Content” in the Chronicle Herald

I guess “Sponsored Content” is not “fake news”, but it can detract from otherwise good journalism in mainstream newspapers & news magazines, especially in the online versions

UPDATE Apr 26, 2018.
The Chronicle Herald responds to questions

Map with features on a map posted on a Northern Pulp website. “Our proposal is to construct an Effluent Treatment Facility on land at the mill property, and lay a pipeline on the bottom of Pictou Harbour…

Northern Pulp has used a “Sponsored Content” feature offered by the Chronicle Herald to tell Nova Scotians how very important it is to the province.

View Nova Scotia pulp and paper industry continues to flourish
Sponsored Content – Northern Pulp, Chronicle Herald Apr 24, 2018*.
*No date of publication is given; the date cited is the date I viewed it.

Some excerpts:

In Nova Scotia, the pulp and paper industry contributes significantly to the province’s economy and is a major employer — Northern Pulp Nova Scotia (NPNS) alone has more than 330 direct employees. The forest industry province-wide provides over 11,500 direct and indirect jobs.

Jobs extend beyond the forest and into areas such as trucking, contractors and ports. Northern Pulp and its parent company, Paper Excellence, is among the largest exporters out of the Port of Halifax, exporting more than 1,700 ocean freight containers every month through the port.

To accomplish this monumental feat, NPNS hires several freight companies that employ 30 full-time truck drivers every month, just to move NPNS’ volumes. Each driver operates equipment with a capital purchase cost of $250,000 per unit, according to Cloutier. The port handles over 1,500 vessels every year and generates more than 12,400 jobs and $1.7-billion in economic impact, she says.

Northern Pulp further directly generates more than $11-million annually in tax revenues, according to Cloutier, who says, “Northern Pulp operations also directly affect and benefit over 1,300 companies over several industries, with a total annual value output exceeding $535 million.”

“While the ownership of Northern Pulp is often described as ‘foreign-owned,’ it must be understood that the $315-million generated annually by Northern Pulp stays within the province, benefitting each and every Nova Scotian on a daily basis,” explains Cloutier. “In fact, Colchester County benefits most, followed by Pictou County and HRM.”

And, says Northern Pulp, they are good environmental citizens:

…a key part of maintaining the health of the industry is a solid commitment to sustainability and the environment, according to Cloutier, who says Northern Pulp will continue its progressive efforts in reducing their environmental footprint. This includes a new land-based effluent treatment facility that will replace the existing Boat Harbour facility.

Given the timing and high public concern about Northern Pulp’s environmental impacts it’s pretty clear that Northern Pulp’s message is “we are too big to fail”.

Northern Pulp is facing assessments on three environmental fronts:

  • the extent of clearcutting needed to feed Nova Scotia’s two pulp and paper mills (now being assessed in some way by the Independent Review of Forest Practices);
  • the foul stack emissions from the Northern Pulp Mill (it has failed successive tests in the past);
  • massive pollution of estuarine waters, first via Boat Harbour (it failed on that front with the forced closure of Boat Harbour) and now the planned disposal into nearby fishing grounds (subject to an upcoming EA).

So in Northern Pulp’s case, “too big to fail” might better be expressed as “we are so big that we must continue to be allowed to fail environmentally”.

I have to also wonder if Mr. Northern Pulp’s essay might not make the grade as a paper submitted in Economics 101. In the margin next to the second paragraph that begins with “In Nova Scotia, the pulp and paper industry contributes significantly to the province’s economy and is a major employer…”, Economics Prof Nova Scott wrote: it’s not enough to state that “the forest industry province-wide provides over 11,500 direct and indirect jobs” to justify your claim that the industry is a major employer – to put those numbers in context, you must also cite figures for total employment in the province.

So in his revision, Mr. Northern Pulp added the following as a footnote:

The direct jobs from the forest industry were 5,467 in 2016 or about 1/2 of the total cited for direct and indirect jobs; 449,000 Nova Scotians were employed in total. Thus direct jobs in the forest industry account for 1.2% of total employment.

“Excellent”, said Prof Nova Scott as he discussed the revision with Mr. Northern Pulp. “Now let’s have a more detailed look at the balance sheets. For one, I am trying to figure out why a foreign owned company would remain in Nova Scotia when, according to your paper, all of the revenue remains in Nova Scotia.

Northern Pulp clearcut, Photo courtesy of Raymond Plourde. “Looking up at the gaping hole in the treed horizon of the western slopes of Wentworth Valley, or gazing at the devastation from the edge of the clearcut while the wind howls over the denuded terrain, the phrase ‘protect the land’ is not the one that springs to mind.” – Joan Baxter

“Also, lets put some $ numbers on the direct and indirect subsidies to the forest industry. In other words, you need to do a full CBA (cost-benefit analysis). You should also account for any negative (or positive) economic impacts on other sectors of the economy such as tourism.

“And anticipating that carbon credits and the like are becoming more important in the economics of forestry, you should do a full accounting of the environmental costs incurred to maintain industrial forestry practices/pulp and paper in Nova Scotia. To get you going on that front, have a look at the GPI studies.”

“Oh Dear”, said Mr. Northern Pulp. “Do you really think this is all necessary?”

“Yes”, replied Prof. Nova Scott, rather dryly. “Your company is called Paper Excellence is it not?”

Some questions for the Chronicle Herald

As a compulsive reader of the paper version of the Chronicle Herald for 40+ years, I welcomed the return of this pulp and paper product to my breakfast table and the return of some good, Nova Scotia focussed journalism following the end of the 19 month strike. (I had dropped both versions of the Chronicle Herald about 5 months into the strike.)

However, after a few weeks of putting out a blue-bag chock full of paper (mostly ads) I changed to an electronic-only subscription. I have got used to that now and feel a little better about my life-style on the consumer goods and save-a-few-trees side, not so good about the increased screen time.

In days gone by, I had especially appreciated the in-depth articles and series carried in the Chronicle Herald, such as the Nova Scotia A to Z series in 2013. And I was addicted to reading letters-to-the-ed and op-eds and the stories told in the obituaries.

At least some degree of good journalism has returned following settlement of the strike and overall I view the range of subjects, opinions etc on forests and forestry in Nova Scotia given in the Chronicle Herald as fairly reflective of the state of our forests and forestry in 2017/2018 and of the related debates; occasionally it has provided some really good investigative journalism, such as following up on Danny George’s concerns about cutting in the Loon Lake area. That “both sides” have sometimes openly criticized the Chronicle Herald as leaning one way or the other is some indication, I think, that the Chronicle Herald is reasonably balanced overall and that it allows/encourages different perspectives to be expressed in op-eds and letters to the editor.

I am not sure where Sponsored Content such as the Northern Pulp item fits into this balance and it may not.

Given the sponsor, there is nothing surprising in the article. However, creating an article that in its presentation looks like a regular item written by staff rather than looking like an ad or statement carried with the logo of the sponsoring entity must be intended to fool at least some of the people some of the time. Otherwise what is its purpose or if not purpose, its appeal to potential sponsors? “Fake News” comes to mind.

I was curious about what info would come up when the results of a Google search include a citation of the Northern Pulp item. So I did a Google search for “Nova Scotia, pulp and paper” restricting the search to the last week. The following citation of the Northern Pulp article came up as the second of “about 398,000 results”:

In that short citation, there is no mention that the item is “Sponsored Content” or of an author or sponsor (Northern Pulp).

So to a “news scanner” (my term for someone who scans the web for news about a particular topic), it looks like a regular news item. Many, perhaps most news scanners just absorb the message expressed in the first few sentences without investigating further. So in the electronic news world, it seems pretty likely that some of the people are fooled some of the time.

I probably would not have registered any concern in this vein, had I not only a few days before been taken aback by a quite aggressive pro-forest industry ad that inserted itself in an online Chronicle Herald article by tree-hugging journalist Zack Metcalfe. (View
Zack M on the difference between the forests of Nova Scotia, BC and Scotland, posted on Apr 17, 2017). I asked myself, was this random, was I targeted, was it simply an inadvertent result of how ads are inserted on CH news items, i.e. is it built into the Chronicle Herald’s electronic news system but not as a deliberate effort to target people reading tree-hugger friendly articles? Or is it a service paid for by clients to target people reading items about forests and forestry in Nova Scotia?

The combination of some sort of targeted advertising (as I experienced reading the Metcalfe article online) and Sponsored Content (as represented by the Northern Pulp piece) is blurring any good, independent journalism practiced by writers and editors for the Chronicle Herald; at least its blurring it in the online news world.

For print editions, it’s usually easy to spot and to separate the Sponsored Content from the rest. I regularly remove it from Macleans Magazine before I read it – I think for the last issue, I removed 3/4 of the magazine! I guess that is some indication of just how important Sponsored Content is for their revenue stream. That makes me think that we can expect much more Sponsored Content in the Chronicle Herald in the days ahead…

So I have a few questions for the Chronicle Herald:

– Are ads carried electronically in the Chronicle Herald targeted in any way, e.g., to show up when a reader views certain content?

– How do the costs for “Sponsored Content” compare with the cost of putting the equivalent amount of material or space in an ad?

– Are there guidelines or specific requirements for Sponsored Content?

– Do Chronicle Herald staff write any Sponsored Content?

– If so, what are their journalistic guidelines?

– How long does a Sponsored Content item remain posted? Is it always available as an archive?

I am sending those questions to the Chronicle Herald, ‘will report on any replies.

I am still waiting for answers to previous questions I have sent the Chronicle Herald, so don’t hold your breath!*

Come to think of it, we are still waiting to hear from NSDNR on the results of their investigation of the Loon Lake area cuts, highlighted by Aaron Beswick’s reports in the Chronicle Herald.

And pretty soon, we will be waiting for the government to release the report from the Independent Review of Forest Practices in Nova Scotia, due the end of this month.

*UPDATE Apr 26, 2018: It turns out the Chronicle Herald had replied to me, and promptly. I should have double-checked my incoming mail most of which is junk and goes to the Trash folder where I looked for it and found it after I received a second e-mail responding to set of questions above. Apologies to the Chronicle Herald.

Here are the responses to the questions above:

1 Are ads carried electronically in the Chronicle Herald targeted in any way, e.g., to show up when a reader views certain content?
Answer: Yes, we GEO Target.

2 How do the costs for “Sponsored Content” compare with the cost of putting the equivalent amount of material or space in an ad?
Ans: A ¼ page ad size cost to run in print 1 day = $2661 + tax. Rate Card attached.

3 Are there guidelines or specific requirements for Sponsored Content?
Guidelines are in the PDF

4 Do Chronicle Herald staff write any Sponsored Content?
Ans: Yes, but you [the sponsor] don’t have any say in it.

5 If so, what are their journalistic guidelines?
Ans: All stories in the CH are subject to news content and they write them, sponsored content is not your best option unless you don’t care what you sponsor.

6 How long does a Sponsored Content item remain posted? Is it always available as an archive?
Ans: 2 -4 weeks

It took some clarification through a direct phone conversation for me to understand what is involved related to questions 3,4, and 5.

Sponsored Content is written by Chronicle Herald staff from materials provided by the sponsor. I was told that the Chronicle Herald staff have “red flags” that they adhere to; if something doesn’t smell right… they do their due diligence; they can’t put false information out to the market place…and the content has to be useful to the readership.

Thank you Chronicle Herald for the clarification.

It does not me make me feel better about targeted ads and Sponsored Content, but perhaps I am a little more prepared for them.

Sponsored Content is not restricted to the Chronicle Herald and concern about Sponsored Content has been expressed within journalism circles, e.g.

The danger posed to journalism by “sponsored content” – Michael’s essay
CBC Radio The Sunday Edition, June 20, 2016

Sponsored Content in the Media: Emerging Threat or Evolution of the Industry?
John Cooper in the Harvard Political Review, Oct 9, 2017 “In what may seem a strange trend, traditional news outlets are increasingly publishing pieces drafted by corporate PR departments. Commonly referred to as native advertising or sponsored content, this practice involves long-form articles disguised as typical content, even using the same fonts and formatting. At its core, sponsored content represents a new and expanding corporate presence in journalism. The aesthetic of the page is intended to trick the reader into thinking the content is journalistic in nature. This trend has sparked debates over the ethics and consequences of sponsored content in media.”

And for a PR industry perspective:

Native Advertising vs. Sponsored Content: What’s the Difference?
Valerie Turgeon for BrandPoint, Nov 15, 2017. A “Sponsored content and native advertising are forms of paid media strategies and fit the form and function of the surrounding editorial content on a webpage. It looks “native” to the page…”

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