Readers of The Denver Post may have noticed an extra section this past Sunday. The six-page insert carried the banner "Energy and Environment" and included stories like "Reclamation helps balance environment and energy needs" and "Colorado environmental regulations serve as model for rest of the U.S." It looked nearly identical in many ways to the rest of the paper's content, and that was the goal.
In reality, the entire section was paid for by an energy industry-backed organization, Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, known as CRED. The organization was founded last year by Anadarko Petroleum and Noble Energy, two energy companies with big investments in Colorado.
Since these monthly sponsored inserts started running in February, they have drawn increasing attention, and criticism, from environmental groups concerned about oil and gas development and even from within the Post.
The local chapter of the Sierra Club says more than 1,600 people have submitted complaints to the Post through a form set up on the organization's website. And on April 9, Denver Post energy reporter Mark Jaffe tweeted out a link to the section with the message, "Faux Denver Post. Industry group's paid article looks a lot a Post story -- it isn't."
Sponsored content is nothing new. It's a way for newspapers to make up a bit for dwindling revenues from traditional ads. For advertisers, these sections offer a new way to reach jaded audiences. But they're often restricted to things publications don't normally cover, like miracle diets and new dental implant technologies. When papers run so-called advertorials on more newsy subjects, they can run into trouble, according to Poynter Institute ethicist Kelly McBride.
"The reason this is getting so much attention is because the audience in Denver has a certain expectation of the Denver Post, and that is that the newspaper will cover this issue of energy in a way that informs the public and allows them to participate in the public debate," says McBride. "And that's obviously not what this content does. And so the audience is asking some questions."
However, McBride says this is a grey area, where journalistic best practices are still being worked out. Some publications use different fonts for their sponsored content to distinguish it from regular reporting. With the "Energy and Environment" section, the Post includes a header on top of each page that reads "Advertising Supplement to the Denver Post." Online there's a link at the top of the page that explains what sponsored content is. Still, the goal here, says McBride, is audience confusion.
"If the advertiser can 'trick' the audience, the advertiser wins in this," she says.
But for CRED spokesperson Jon Haubert, the "Energy and Environment" section is intended as what he calls a supplement to traditional news coverage of the industry.
"There is almost more information out there than any news publication can cover," says Haubert. "There are so many exciting things happening right now that I don’t know that anyone can keep up with them. This is our opportunity to share that good story, the untold story that may not get out because it isn’t controversial, it’s just a good story."
The Post intends to run the Energy and Environment section monthly at least through the end of this year, according to Haubert, who hopes other companies or organizations will come on board to sponsor it and that the content might grow to include job ads for the energy industry. He points out that the presentation is similar to sponsored real estate sections in the paper that are regularly underwritten by the Homebuilders Association and various construction companies.
The Post did not respond to a request for comment in time for this story. On its website the paper states, "We strive to ensure that the treatment and design of all advertising and Sponsored Content is clearly differentiated from editorial content."
CORRECTION: an earlier version of this article erroneously stated that CRED would be sponsoring the Energy and Environment segment through the end of the year. That is incorrect. CRED says sponsorship of the section is open to others.