Denby Fawcett: Paid Ads Posing As News Stories Blur The Lines - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Vicky Cayetano’s cover story in MidWeek this week looks like a news article, but it is a paid ad for her campaign. Only at the end of the article is a disclaimer in small print: “This advertisement is paid for by Vicky for Governor.”

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The story, which has a Midweek Staff byline, is part of a disturbing trend in media when it’s hard to distinguish between real news stories and paid advertising.

And the blur between the two seems to be getting larger as more and more media companies struggle to find new ways to entice buyers to spend money on ads.

This pay-to-play approach erodes readers’ confidence over what is real news and what is paid-for advertising content.

Civil Beat reported about the trend two years ago when then-mayoral candidate Keith Amemiya’s campaign paid Oahu Publications $50,000 for a similar advertising package that featured him in a cover story written by MidWeek staffers.

The Amemiya cover piece also had a disclaimer after the article’s last sentence. Amemiya’s disclaimer used the word “paid” twice and was one sentence longer than Cayetano’s.

But that’s not enough. There should be a larger disclaimer right on the cover of MidWeek or in articles in any publication that is offering editorial content for a price. Many people do not read to the end of a story to know it’s an ad.

The Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission dismissed two complaints over a Keith Amemiya Midweek ad from 2019. Screenshot/2020

Dennis Francis, the president of Oahu Publications, the parent company of both the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and MidWeek, said people are well aware that many of MidWeek’s cover stories are paid for by advertisers.

He says unlike a newspaper with a subscription fee, the publication arrives at 267,000 homes on Oahu for no charge.

“Anyone who looks through the pages of MidWeek can see it is a 100% advertising vehicle, not a newspaper like the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,” he said in a phone interview.

But it can be confusing. MidWeek on its front cover says “Hawaii’s Favorite Newspaper.”

Francis says the stiff competition to capture advertising revenue has forced publications all over the country to find new ways to stay relevant and to offer more value to their advertisers. MidWeek’s cover stories for pay are just one of them.

Politicians are not prohibited by law from paying for advertising that’s packaged as news stories. In fact, the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission ruled in favor of Amemiya when there were complaints that his MidWeek cover story was not clear it was an ad.

Lynne Waters, communications director for Vicky Cayetano, says the Cayetano campaign saw value in buying a MidWeek cover story as a rare opportunity to get out its message to homes all over Oahu.

“From that perspective it was worth it to us,” she said.

Hawaii’s former First Lady Vicky Cayetano announcing that she is officially running as a Democrat for Governor of the State of Hawai‘i during News conference at Hawai‘i State Capitol grounds on Monday August 30, 2021. Ronen Zilberman Civil Beat.
Vicky Cayetano’s campaign said it insisted that MidWeek make it clear the cover story was paid advertising. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2021

Waters said Cayetano from the beginning insisted that MidWeek be clear that the cover story was paid advertising, not editorial content.

When asked if it couldn’t have been made more obvious with a disclaimer on the MidWeek cover itself, she said: “The campaign deferred to the publication on placement of the disclaimer. The important thing is that it’s clearly stated at the end of the article, just as disclaimers are placed at the end of TV ads.”

But TV ads are quick, often less than 30 seconds. A viewer normally sticks with the commercial to see the disclaimer. However in today’s busy world, not everyone reads print articles all the way to the end.

For all its claims of transparency, the Cayetano campaign would not reveal how much it paid for the cover story, which was purchased as part of an advertising package offered by Oahu Publications.

Waters later wrote in an email: “Further information on the buy can be obtained through the next Campaign Spending Report.”

Other campaigns have said they were informed by MidWeek the cost would be $50,000 to $60,000.

Francis says Cayetano is the only politician so far this election season to pay for a cover story.

Liz Skillin, campaign manager for gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Josh Green, said MidWeek offered Green the opportunity to buy a cover story but Green declined.

She would not say why. She said the campaign had no further comment on the issue.

U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, also running for governor, said in a text that he was featured in a MidWeek cover story in June 2019. “But we didn’t pay anything for it. They featured me and my story on their own,” he wrote.

That was when Kahele launched his campaign for the congressional seat then held by Democrat Tulsi Gabbard.

Kahele said that his campaign has not received an offer this year from MidWeek to pay for a cover story.

He texted that he agreed with Civil Beat’s article in 2020 on Amemiya’s MidWeek cover story.

“MidWeek should have labeled the Amemiya cover story as an advertisement right on the cover — up front and center. There should have been no confusion about what it was,” Kahele wrote.

Peoples’ confidence in legitimate, fact-based journalism is already slipping. Pay-to-play pitches such as MidWeek’s offer to hungry politicians to buy a cover story — especially during an election year — is making the line between truth and commerce slip even further.

As a longtime news reporter, I say it needs to stop.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Great piece that further reveals the "pay-to-play" culture in Hawaii (politics & government).

Sun_Duck · 1 year ago

Ms. Cayetano promises transparency, but pays for a puff-piece infomercial in Midweek. At least one of her television ads comments on "old boys," but while I believe that former Governor Cayetano had at least three major accomplishments (medical school, convention center, Kapolei as a second city) he was (and is) one of the "old boys."

irwinhill · 1 year ago

Spot on Denby. Enough of this "People are so dumb they will think this is a genuine magazine article" political nonsense. Almost as erroneous as "Hawaii's Favorite Newspaper". By whose standards?Talk about Fake News..... homegrown. Auwe!Aloha.

Manawanui · 1 year ago

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