Thursday, June 7, 2012

Tennessean Farms Out Health Section to Hospital Flacks

Posted By on Thu, Jun 7, 2012 at 5:58 PM

Well, that's one way to add content on the cheap.

The Tennessean rolled out new features sections a few weeks ago on Wednesday (Taste), Thursday (Family), Friday (Ticket), Saturday (Style) and an expanded Sunday lifestyles section. They're designed to add more value to the print product, something 1100 Broadway had to do after substantially raising subscription and newsstand prices.

But to add local content to the sections (beyond the usual syndicated stuff that they also added), the daily added columns by local bloggers ... and out-and-out press releases.

When we read the note from publisher Carol Hudler and new editor Maria De Varenne a few weeks ago, we didn't think twice about this line about a new Health page:

"It will include medical advice from local health-care providers and a calendar of family activities."

What we didn't know was that they were turning pages of their paper over to flacks from Vanderbilt Hospital. That's right, the credit on the bylined pieces reads, "Vanderbilt University Medical Center."

In fairness, both Carole Bartoo and Dagny Stuart, who wrote the stories, are ex-journalists. But emphasize the "ex" part, as Bartoo and Stuart both left Channel 4 a while ago. The pieces that they wrote are available on Vanderbilt information sites and they are advocates for their employer:

We're not sure who's getting the worse end of this deal. Is it the journalists that Gannett and the Tennessean apparently don't want to pay to fill this newly added space? Or is it readers who expect that they're buying content from a news organization and not the information arm of a local hospital? Or is it the area's other hospitals, which just saw the Tennessean hand over a free page to a competitor in a highly promoted new section? Or do the St. Thomas and Baptist staffs get next week's page?

(Update: Apparently stories from St. Thomas are on the site. But note, clicking on this link will count towards the number of free stories the Tennessean's new paywall allows each month.)

Some more questions: How will The Tennessean cover VUMC now that it's using Vanderbilt Medical as a way to outsource content? Will the hospital receive the same amount of scrutiny if there is a problem or a lawsuit?

Add another to the list of things that would never have happened on John Seigenthaler's watch.

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