An investigation by Tallahassee Reports has determined that just one month after he announced he would run for governor of Florida, Mayor Andrew Gillum’s office negotiated with the Tallahassee Democrat to publish ten stories favorable to a Gillum initiative.
The ten stories were written by Tallahassee Democrat journalist TaMaryn Waters and highlighted Gillum’s “Family Friendly Workplace” initiative he began in 2015.
In May 2017, the Mayor’s Office was billed $10,000 for the stories.
The stories appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat during the first two weeks of April 2017, just four weeks after Gillum announced his candidacy for governor.
The articles did not disclose that the stories were sponsored content paid for by the Mayor’s Office.
Records recovered by TR show that the initial $10,000 bill sent by the Tallahassee Media Group (TMG) was ignored by Gillum’s office until a TMG “collection specialist” intervened in October, 2017.
Ultimately, TMG issued a $2,500 discount and Gillum’s office paid half of the discounted amount on January 8, 2018.
It appears TMG has yet to be paid for the remaining balance.
The investigation began when TR sought an explanation for an expense discovered in the city’s online checkbook for the Mayor’s Office. The expense item indicated that the Mayor’s Office paid the Tallahassee Democrat $3,750 for advertising on January 8th, 2018.
At the time the expense was paid, TR reported that Gillum was in negotiation with the Tallahassee Democrat over another article about his trip to New York with Adam Corey.
After a records request, the City of Tallahassee provided emails, invoices, and when asked about the nature of the expenditure, the Clerks Office provided this statement:
The information regarding the check and invoice was for the Democrat to produce articles about some of our family friendly businesses in 2017.
The articles profiled specific businesses that were deemed to have family friendly work places.
In addition to not disclosing that the articles were paid for by the Mayor’s Office, the profiles do not highlight any relationship with the Mayor’s Office in the title, the branding logo, or in the article.
As seen below, the profile format for the ten stories provides an “About the Series” heading (noted by red star), but does not disclose anything about the relationship between the series and the Mayor’s Office.
While sponsored content has become a part of the media landscape for businesses, the publishing of sponsored content by the Tallahassee Democrat for a gubernatorial candidate during a campaign without disclosure may be a first by a legacy media outlet.
Politico, a global news and information company, labels paid for content before and after the title of the article (see below) and in the beginning and at the end of the article.
Also, Business Insider runs sponsored posts with the disclosure message marked at both the beginning and the end of each article using the word “sponsored.”
A former New York Times employee, Ava Sirrah, recently explained why sponsored content for businesses can be a problem for media organizations.
While the practice is lucrative, it also jeopardizes the editorial independence of newsrooms as journalists become aware of what advertisers want them to discuss. Today, brands are able to work with journalists in unprecedented ways that are difficult to regulate, because very few people know how such partnerships between advertiser and publisher are negotiated.
Tallahassee Reports reviewed each of the 10 profiles and found that the only disclosure is approximately five paragraphs into each profile that states the “series is a partnership between the City of Tallahassee and the Tallahassee Democrat that stems from the Family First Initiative launched in 2015 by Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (noted by red lines in above image).”
The $10,000 invoice sent by TMG referenced the Mayor’s Office. Also, there is no record of any payment from any City of Tallahassee department other than the Mayor’s Office. See invoice below.
TR will continue to investigate.