By Chantal Braganza
A lot of editors, in both magazines and newspapers, will tell you that faces sell copies. When you're standing in front of a news rack tiled over with options, there's just something about the human face on a cover or front page people connect with, especially (duh), when they're famous.
As Toronto's mayoral race starts to pick up speed, there are two faces I've been thinking about. One is of George Smitherman on the cover Toronto Life, where writer Gerald Hannon profiled him for the March issue.
Courtesy of Toronto Life
It's pretty arresting, as a cover. How many readers would otherwise get to see George this close up?
The next one is just as striking, but for a different reason:
Courtesy of the Women's Post
Courtesy of the Women's Post
This is Sarah Thomson, another mayoral candidate on a magazine cover. One that she happens to publish—or at least did before announcing she would also join the race as Toronto's first female candidate this race.
Don't get me wrong: this post isn't about pitting the political merits of one candidate against the other. It's about coverage. One magazine decided to run a profile of a candidate it thought was an interesting character. The other used its pages as a political bullhorn for its own publisher.
The Women's Post bills itself as "the only nationally distributed magazine designed specifically for professional women," with a circulation of 70,000. It was started by Thomson, and built by her. But are the pages of your own magazine an appropriate space to advocate for a campaign?
There are actually guidelines against doing this type of thing as promoted by the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors. According to their playbook on keeping advertising separate from editorial—and according to CSME, the cover page is most definitely editorial—Thomson putting her face on the cover of her own magazine is wrong on multiple levels. Namely rules three, six and seven:
"No advertisement may be promoted on the cover of the magazine or included in the editorial table of contents, unless it involves an editorially directed contest, promotion or sponsored one-off editorial extra..."
"No advertiser may purchase product placement or mention in editorial pages, photographs or illustrations."
"The names and/or titles of editorial staff and regular contributors should not appear on, or be associated with, special advertising sections. Editorial staff should not be required to prepare advertising sections for their own publications, other publications in their field or advertisers in the fields they cover."
Of course, this would assume that what Thomson had run in her magazine was, in fact, advertising. When I called her about it, she explained it to me as an editorial decision.
"I’ve never put myself on the cover because we’ve always tried to find women who are stepping up to the plate," Thomson said, pointing out that up to a year ago her staff had decided if a woman ran for mayor in this election, they would promote her in the magazine. “I ended up going, ‘You know what? I’m going to run,’ and so it’s fit in with our editorial mandate, as a woman running for mayor.” While that may work, there’s also the problem that in order to put her face and campaign message in the cover and pages of her magazine, Thomson had to pay for the space.
So what to make of the quandary?
“Our philosophy on this is that it’s a matter of perception,” says Bob Sexton, president of CSME and associate editor of Outdoor Canada. “If people are tripping up on something or feel that it smells somewhat, then I think that there’s a problem. The idea is never to present editorial or cross those lines, or intentionally or unintentionally blur those lines.”
Regardless of the rules, most readers can tell when a publication is trying to sell them content that's anything less what it's supposed to be: unbiased editorial. Treating readers as if they don't know the difference is a pretty good way to lose them.
Many industry editors would call paying for space advertising, or advertorial: that fuzzy practice of presenting an advertisement as an objective article or piece. Unfortunately, this situation isn’t a whole lot clearer. She says she was just following municipal election rules by doing so: “With the election financing laws, in my editorial, if I write anything on the election, I have to pay for it,” Thomson said. “So because I was a candidate for mayor and [in her editorial] I was talking about what it takes to run, why I believe I’m a good candidate, I have to pay for that editorial.” Election Services Office director Bonita Pietrangelo told me Thomson was likely referring to a City of Toronto by-law (page 3) that prohibits corporations from making a contribution to candidates for office. By paying for the space, Pietrangelo says, Thomson’s campaign could have filed it as a legitimate expense. “I’m usually a very humble person,” said Thomson. “But you have to step out when you’re writing in politics. You have to expose yourself and take that risk. And people can shoot me down for it, that’s fine, but I’m trying to show other women what it takes."
Chantal Braganza is a Star intern copy editor and recent graduate of the Ryerson Journalism program. email@example.com