Tuesday, September 13, 2005

San Francisco Examiner used restaurant reviews to bring in advertising

The great journalism watchdog weblog, Romanesko, links to this expose in Grade the News.

The San Francisco Examiner and Independent agreed Friday to label as advertising a regular restaurant news column the newspapers had used to reward advertisers and solicit ads from eating establishments.

The announcement, by Executive Editor Vivienne Sosnowski, came in response to queries by Grade the News about George Habit, a dining columnist whose articles appeared several times each week in the newspapers. Mr. Habit's columns were presented as news and he was identified as a journalist under the byline "special to the Examiner," or just "Independent Newspapers."

In reality, Mr. Habit is an ad salesman, not a journalist. His column, he said in an earlier interview, is designed not to help consumers make informed dining choices, but to reward advertisers and entice new business from restaurants that have yet to sign an ad contract. "Yes, I use the column as an initiative to get advertisers to run
an ad," Mr. Habit said. "The paper gives me a free rein."

George Habit's column on Aug. 24 paid homage to his advertisers. In the Aug. 24 edition of the Examiner distributed on the Peninsula, Mr. Habit lavished praise on 29 restaurants, bars and attractions; 25 had ads on the same pages across which Mr. Habit's column was spread. Two more establishments had advertised the previous week.

"We do favor the accounts that are advertisers," he explained. "Even if the food is no good, the atmosphere is good. You can always find nice things to say about a restaurant." Apparently Mr. Habit will still get to write nice things about restaurants, but readers now will be warned that his comments are advertising, not news.

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