Should Web sites bossed by ad agencies replace your daily newspaper someday?

image The CEO of giant WPP Group—a global ad-agency holding company with major financial firepower and a fondness for acquisitions—complains of too many newspapers and magazines.

Might Martin Sorrell, shown during a BBC World interview on a different topic, be badmouthing the old media while quietly hoping to snap up a few publications during the Great “Recession” at bargain prices? His company already owns a minority stake in a Spanish broadcaster, a model he finds “interesting,” and he envisions ad agencies playing a greater role in content creation.

Let’s hope he’ll stick to advertising and PR. At the formal level at least, a tour of WPP’s corporate Web site shows a lack of interest in journalistic responsibility. Not a syllable on the topic appears in the corporate conduct code. And why should it? This is is an ad-and-PR-focused outfit like its brethren, not a bastion of do-gooders and truth-seekers. Do we really want money siphoned off from mainstream media to the kind directly bossed by ad agencies and their clients?

Not so surprisingly, In the 2008 annual report, WPP notes that “the financial institutions blamed for the credit crunch will need to buff up their tarnished reputations. In all these cases, PR will help.” Yes, let’s Restore Confidence, but shouldn’t the truth matter, too, for savers and investors? While WPP’s corporate responsibility report mentions freedom of opinion, it’s in a general human-rights context—as opposed to: “If our people advertise in your newspaper, we won’t tell you what to write.” And this is still a long way from, say, promising to maintain a bureau in Bagdad when WPP runs or sets up Web sites.

For more details, check out an earlier item, which today I’ve expanded and refined: Ad biz’s Gordon Gekko sees lines blurring between news and ads—and WANTS news biz to shrink. Please note the reason for the name “Gekko”—not accusations of illegality; rather, an acquisitive nature and a lack of corporate responsibility in media matters, when Sorrell calls for fewer voices. Democracy and newspaper and magazine jobs be damned!

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David Rothman

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