For Detroit’s alt-weekly, rising ambition and a few questionable decisions

Native ads can be OK--just be clear with readers, and please keep them off the cover!

DETROIT, MI — The Boston Phoenix closed up shop. The Village Voice is diminished by heavy layoffs and staff disquiet. And last winter, the outlook for Metro Times, the 34-year-old alt-weekly in Detroit, didn’t look too good either. After years of declining circulation and staff cuts, the paper was put up for sale.

But in an unexpected turnaround, a newly-formed ownership team called Euclid Media Group scooped up Metro Times in December, along with the alt-weeklies in Cleveland, San Antonio, and Orlando. And rather than squeeze out what life was left in Metro Times, the new owner touts its commitment to “hard-hitting, culturally savvy alternative journalism.” A new staff member was hired for an “investigative reporter” position. Valerie Vande Panne, an award-winning journalist and former news editor of High Times, was brought in to lead the charge as editor in chief.

And indeed, Metro Times has lately been publishing much more rigorous features on the region’s most pressing news, from the controversial incinerator in Midtown Detroit to an analysis of the region’s patchy public transportation to the politics behind the building of the new, publicly-subsidized Red Wings Arena. Vande Panne is particularly proud of the Red Wings piece; she told me she heard from readers who kept that issue of the paper with them, taking in the long feature over the course of the week. (I should note here that she and I have been friendly since before she arrived in Detroit.) In comparison, when the city filed for municipal bankruptcy a year ago, the Metro Times cover story was a rehash of what other media said about the city, including jokes about Detroit told by late-night comedians.

Unfortunately, these rising editorial aspiration have at times been undercut by some unusual business-side circumstances, and a few questionable decisions amid the transition. The issues aren’t fatal to Metro Times’ long-term ambitions, but they do demand attention—and they underscore the importance of being clear and transparent about your revenue model.

To expand its clout in the region, Euclid also bought Real Detroit Weekly—a competing free publication that was heavy with ads and known more as a “party book,” as a former staffer described it to me. The owners merged the two publications under the Metro Times name in May, barely two weeks after Vande Panne began her tenure. (She doesn’t recall the potential for a merger coming up in her interview.) The deal brought new staff capacity to the “super-weekly,” especially to the business side, and it has the potential to bring Metro Times, whose average reader is 38 years old, to a younger audience.

But the deal also brought with it baggage—namely, Real Detroit’s outstanding contracts with advertisers, among them promotional packages in which companies had been promised editorial coverage.

Including, apparently, cover stories. “Elektric City: Lights, Music, and Magic” was the cover story of the June 25 issue of Metro Times. It featured a three-year-old nightclub in suburban Pontiac owned by a local entrepreneur who also owns several local restaurants, and has been a longtime advertiser in both Metro Times and Real Detroit. For a sense of the story’s blandly promotional tone, take the second paragraph:

Glowing bright, fluorescent blue on weekend nights, the marquee is a beacon to all those who wish to dance, to those who love electronic dance music, and to those who just can’t get enough of lights, confetti, and pounding bass.

The article has no reporter’s byline. Instead, it is “brought to you by Metro Times Promotions.” Nowhere does the text acknowledge that the nightclub is a regular purchaser of full-page ads in the publication.

Another story with the same byline, and the same flavor, appeared in the June 18 issue. That one spotlighted a summer concert series at a casino in Toledo, OH. (Kicker: “An all-encompassing line-up, Hollywoosd Casino promises a summer of warm nights and hot music.”) In print, that article is boxed, presented in a different font, and labeled “MT Sponsored Content”—helpful visual indicators that were unfortunately missing for the “Elektric City” cover story a week later. But those indicators don’t translate online, where, aside from the “Metro Times Promotions” byline, neither story is clearly marked as sponsored content on the article page.

I had a hard time getting someone from the paper’s business side to explain what was happening with these posts, or to even clarify what the paper’s policy is on sponsored content. At press time, Chris Keating, the publisher and one of the Euclid owners, had not responded to multiple requests for comment.

But I got in touch last week with John Badanjek, the former publisher and owner of Real Detroit Weekly and now a part-owner of Metro Times and its president of events. Offering editorial coverage to advertisers is “something Real Detroit Weekly used to do quite a bit of,” he said. “People might have referred to [content like this] as an advertorial, but I thought it was fair in coverage for an entertaining publication.

“It is not something Euclid Media is currently engaging in,” Badanjek said. But “there are some contractual obligations that still exist with Real Detroit Weekly,” he added. “We’re still sort of finishing them up.”

As for placing the “Elektric City” story on the cover? Badanjek called that an “oversight” and said, “it would not happen again.” Vande Panne also told me that advertorials or sponsored content will not make the cover in the future.

In an apparent contradiction, Amir Daiza, owner of the Pontiac nightclub, denied having paid for the cover story as part of a promotional package: “It would be nice if they would do that, right?” he said when asked about it directly. And when I spoke to Badanjek a second time, he offered a somewhat different account, claiming Real Detroit never sold editorial content. But Daiza also said Real Detroit had more “leeway” than Metro Times. “They picked up on more of the ideas I threw at them,” he said, adding that “yes, editorial coverage was a lot easier with Real Detroit than Metro Times.”

Given that difference in journalistic practice, the simplest thing might have been to keep publishing Real Detroit until it fulfilled whatever its contractual obligations were to advertisers, or to buy out the contracts. According to both Badanjek and Vande Panne, the merger happened swiftly, and there was no discussion along these lines.

Still, this was a manageable situation. However these articles were originally conceived, when they appeared in Metro Times, where readers have an expectation of editorial independence, these puff pieces (and any others like them) were essentially native advertising. Metro Times may also be selling stand-alone, straight-up sponsored content going forward. And, as CJR’s Ryan Chittum has written, there is nothing inherently wrong with native ads, so long as readers can tell which content is independent and which is paid for. (It’s also a good idea not to devote your front cover to sponsored content, but that probably goes without saying.)

Vande Panne, the Metro Times editor, made a similar point about disclosure in an interview. “For me, its church and state,” she said. “Anything paid for needs to be clear to readers, and we do that.”

Indeed, the “Metro Times Promotions” byline, added by editorial staff, was an important bit of disclosure, and the print indicators on the Toledo concert piece were appropriate. But in addition to providing further signals for sponsored content online, and making sure the print cues are applied consistently, Metro Times should explain to readers what Metro Times Promotions actually is—and what its current revenue model is. 

As best I can tell, Metro Times Promotions is the company’s emerging label for native advertising, sponsored content, coupons, social media ad buys, event promotion, and other business deals. The online hub for this activity is MTP’s Facebook page—formerly Real Detroit’s Facebook page; check the URL—which keeps it separate from Metro Times’ editorial content on Facebook. (According to Badanjek, “We’ve turned this page into more of a promotional outlet.”) But any distinction or clarity about the relationship is obfuscated by this line on MTP’s “About” page: “Metro Time [sic] Promotions is the same as Detroit Metro Times.”

To stave off confusion, Metro Times should publish at least a blog post on its main site that clarifies what the Promotions arm is, what sort of deals it makes with advertisers, and what readers can expect when they see it. This is a matter of being straight with readers, and also just keeping up with industry practice—other publications issue press releases when they dip a toe in the native-ad waters.

A transition like this also involves getting everyone within the publication—and advertisers—educated about the new rules, and making sure the rules are applied the same way every time. I found the difficulty in getting an explanation from within Metro Times a little disconcerting. Not only did Badanjek contradict himself, but it’s also apparent that the different cohorts on staff—Real Detroit and Metro Times, editorial and sales—are still talking among themselves about what norms they will establish for native advertising, with the pre-existing contracts serving as a trigger for these conversations. (Vande Panne called it “growing pains.”) But again—there are best practices to follow here; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

Given where the alt-weekly was a year ago, the broader picture here is still encouraging, especially if the early missteps can be corrected. Under the new ownership, Metro Times’ website content has expanded—and so has traffic, according to Badanjek. It may grow even more after Metro Times relaunches its website with a new design in coming weeks. Hopefully, the outlet’s editorial ambitions will continue to grow, too—and it will find a business model that supports serious journalism, in a way that keeps its credibility intact.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit. Tags: , ,