The Church and State Advertising Debate Continues With IndyCar and USA Today Deal

Spring is in the air in Indianapolis. Trees are budding, flowers are blooming and the sun is shining brighter and longer every day. For many Hoosiers, that can only mean one thing: The Indy 500 is just around the corner.

And whether you live in Indianapolis or not, there’s a good chance you’ll be hearing a lot (perhaps more than usual) about IndyCar as the series ramps up for its busiest season of the year. That’s because the IndyCar Series and USA Today Sports Media Group (owned by Virginia-based Gannett Co. Inc.) have agreed to merge marketing, advertising and news coverage in a deal observers alternately describe as groundbreaking or ethically worrisome, as reported by the Indianapolis Business Journal (IBJ) late last week.

The agreement directly impacts two key stakeholders (IndyCar and USA Today) and indirectly affects a third (news-consuming readers). Before getting to the ever-present ethical implications of new media deals such as this one, let’s first make sure we understand exactly what’s happening.

The Deal

Although many details are not being disclosed about the nature of the agreement, IBJ reports the following facts:

  • USA Today will write “pre- and post-race stories for every IndyCar race and produce special sections around the sport and its drivers.” USA Today will also expand online coverage of the IndyCar series.
  • In turn, IndyCar will “give USA Today reporters preferred access to series officials, team owners, and drivers, and track owners [and] give USA Today advertising sales representatives access to its series and team sponsors.”
  • USA Today has also promised to give IndyCar sponsors discounted ad rates—in both print and digital publications.

So, in other words, USA Today is promising multi-article coverage of every IndyCar race for its national audience to consume. In addition to race-specific coverage, there will be special features on the sport and its drivers. This directly impacts IndyCar by boosting its brand awareness through increased (supposedly earned) media.

In return for the expanded coverage, IndyCar will give USA Today reporters special access to races, drivers and other influential members of the IndyCar series. This isn’t surprising because the reporters will need more and better material to report on in order to meet their new articles quotas.

What is surprising, however, is the introduction of USA Today sales reps and IndyCar sponsors facilitated by this deal. This is the direct benefit received by USA Today – access to big brands with deep pockets – and it’s such a great opportunity that they’re offering discounted rates to the sponsors to make sure they sign on the dotted line.

While surprising, this also makes a lot of sense. The newspaper needs revenue, which largely comes from selling ads. These sponsoring brands are quite used to shelling out large sums of money for the privilege of plastering their logo around IndyCar events and racers. So, for IndyCar to make such an introduction, means warm leads for USA Today and a trustworthy, expedited relationship building process for all parties involved.

The Implications

This raises serious ethical questions, according to Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, because the organizations are trading editorial coverage for advertising dollars. And he’s got a good point. What’s deemed newsworthy should be at the discretion of the editor, not the advertisers, right?

But, then again, we’re not talking about coverage of growing grass. We’re talking about IndyCar and American open wheel racing. The Indy 500. This actually is exciting stuff and it’s absolutely deserving of news coverage.

It’s also important to note that we’re not talking about advertorials. Yes, IndyCar will give USA Today special access to important figures and events, but they’re not writing copy or persuading reporters’ content in any way.

“This is true editorial copy. USA Today gets to craft stories as they see fit,” says C.J. O’Donnell, Chief Marketing Officer, Hulman Motorsports.

Jason Ford, Vice President of Sports Marketing for USA Today Sports Media Group adds, “Our team has no relationship with or sway over the writer. We just get them better access and better resources to cover the sport.”

So if reporters are actually writing their own content and it need not be labeled in any particular way since it is, in fact, editorial coverage – then what’s the big deal?

According to Steele, this arrangement makes it “more difficult to distinguish what is biased by this relationship. Just the fact that USA Today promises to run pre- and post-race stories impinges upon journalistic independence.”

Ken Ungar, founder of sports marketing consultancy US Sports Advisors, chimes in with the counter argument that “There isn’t a mixture of church and state. The sport doesn’t influence what’s in the column inches; it just assures they get the column inches.”

The Audience

Remember that third set of stakeholders mentioned earlier, the news-consuming readers? In our eyes, the audience – much like the proverbial customer – always comes first. So let’s take off our marketer hats and journalist hats and advertiser hats for a moment.

We already know Indianapolis residents will be thrilled to see more IndyCar content in the news, but what about the rest of the country who might not be used to extensive coverage of the series? It’s hard to imagine consumers getting downright mad or upset by the presence of more IndyCar coverage. Either you like it and this excites you, or you don’t and you barely notice. Consumers would certainly rather see photos from the races than ads from the sponsors. And they shouldn’t feel duped or deceived by this influx of IndyCar editorial coverage since it’s, well… actual editorial coverage.

So, to recap: Fewer ads, more content. Is this a win-win for all and a step in the right direction towards better revenue generation for newspapers, or is USA Today riding the slippery slope into the mixing of church and state with this and future deals? We’re anxious to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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