Monday, December 15, 2008

Does The Times Trade Favorable Coverage Of The Big Apple Circus For Its Advertising Dollars?

At 7:31 a.m. today, the City Room blog posted a weeklong "Ask About The Big Apple Circus" Q&A with Guillaume Dufresnoy, its incoming artistic director -- an odd service feature for a website that devotes itself mostly to reporting on breaking local news stories, features written by its staff, or Q&As with newsmakers like the head of the New York Public Library.

But perhaps it's not so odd when you consider that in 2006, the most recent year for which tax records are available, the Big Apple Circus placed $449,986 in advertising in the New York Times. This year's budget would appear to be no different; full-page ads for the circus have run regularly in the Times this fall.

Yes, of course, the Big Apple Circus is a nonprofit institution that does wonderful things for New Yorkers through its Clown Care Unit that performs in local hospitals. It has entertained children for years under the big top at Damrosch Park behind Lincoln Center. But with all the good causes clamoring for media attention, does the Times give a disproportionate of its coverage to the Big Apple Circus in return for the substantial advertising revenue it provides the cash-strapped newspaper?

The answer would seem to be yes.

Today's Q&A on the City Room blog is only the latest promotional salvo in the Times's ongoing coverage of the circus, which began performances in October -- and has included a laudatory review, two metro-section pieces, and a signed editorial on the Times' hallowed editorial page.

First up: an October 22 Glenn Collins profile of Paul Binder, the circus's veteran artistic director and ringmaster, who plans to leave the institution after three decades at the helm. Here's a taste of Collins's promotional prose:

No longer shall he be lord of the ring.

Paul Binder, the 66-year-old founder, artistic director and ringmaster of the Big Apple Circus, will be stepping away from the tanbark next year after three decades as boss man of the little top.

Mr. Binder is master of ceremonies and principal public symbol of this one-ring show, which begins its 31st season on Thursday in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center. The new production, “Play On!” — featuring 4 horses, 8 dogs and 28 humans from 12 countries in a heated 1,600-seat blue Italian tent — will continue its traditional holiday run through Jan. 18.


Then came the October 31 obligatory rave review from the Times's regular circus critic, Lawrence Van Gelder, who has never met a clown he didn't like:

Diverse daredevils. Clever clowns. Mischievous mutts. Speeding steeds.

And everywhere — from start to finish, from bandstands and a tent decorated with clef notes and staffs to the performing ring itself — there is music. Jazz and swing. Disco and classical. Air guitar and real guitar. Drumming reminiscent of Gene Krupa’s in his heyday. A tightrope plucked like a bass string. Gene Kelly’s rendering of “Singin’ in the Rain” transformed into a spritzy, splashy bath for buffoons.

This is “Play On!,” the 31st edition of the Big Apple Circus, under its little big top in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center. Taking its title from the line “If music be the food of love, play on” in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” this thoroughly entertaining one-ring show shines a well-deserved spotlight on the music essential to the spectacle while never for a moment slighting the traditional talents of circus art.


On December 5, columnist Clyde Haberman weighed in with a mash note about the circus's Clown Care Unit working with nurses at NYU's college of nursing to improve their bedside skills.

Only three days earlier, on December 2, the Times had published an editorial supporting the circus -- on the same page where it considers wars, presidential elections and terrorism.

The signed piece by Dorothy Samuels, a member of the Times Editorial Board who normally writes about civil rights and public policy issues, wrote a shameless plug for the nonprofit -- hanging her thesis on the changeover in management and the need for the circus to endure in hard times:

This is a moment of transition. At the end of the year, Paul Binder, the founder, artistic director and ringmaster of the Big Apple Circus, has said that he would be stepping down to assume a smaller, behind-the-scenes role. The institution he invented and nurtured along with his co-founder and former juggling partner, Michael Christensen, will be getting a new circus boss in Guillaume Dufresnoy, the outfit’s present general manager.

That will ensure the continuity the circus needs, especially in a tough economy.


Samuels acknowledged the circus's personal role in her own family traditions, and of course there's no sin in saying something nice about a beloved New York institution.

But at what point does it become an imbalance that seems to favor those who focus their advertising dollars on the Times?

The balance seems to have been tipped this morning, as the Times opens up its website to a Q&A that has no journalistic purpose except to promote the cause of a non-profit institution whose relationship with the Times is that of a substantial advertiser -- one of a dwindling number in this troubled economy.

It's time for another good cause -- one without the advertising muscle of the Big Apple Circus -- to get some attention from the Times, and let the circus's ads do their job.

UPDATE: On January 4, the Times published yet another puff piece connected to this year's Big Apple Circus -- this time a profile of Jake and Marty LaSalle, 24-year-old twin jugglers, by Joe Brescia. This story marks the third metro-section piece printed by the Times during this Big Apple Circus run, in a span of less than three months.

1 comment:

Patrick LaForge said...

Hi, I'm the editor of City Room.

The blog's news staff is willing to discuss its decisions and procedures with anyone who asks, and we do so frequently on the blog itself.

Had you bothered to seek a comment, I would have told you that the advertising department plays no role in selecting subjects for the Taking Questions feature. That is a news decision.

Nor do we guarantee favorable coverage to participants in this feature. Readers are encouraged ask tough questions, as some did about treatment of the circus animals.