Perhaps it’s not surprising given that the mayor is a billionaire media magnate, but over the past several years the City of New York has become an incredibly visible advertiser. From that gruesome photo of the stub-fingered smoker to the mound of fat oozing from a soda, the administration has shown a lot of imagination in how it frames its message.
What it hasn’t shown—according to a report out this week from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s Center for Community and Ethnic Media—is a lot of imagination in who it pays to project that message.
The report (which you can read here) found that of the $18 million the city spends every year on ads, 82 percent goes to in mainstream publications like The New York Times, New York Daily News and New York Post. Meanwhile, the report finds, “Although the combined circulation of community and ethnic publications is about 4.5 million, equal to 55 percent of the city’s population, they receive 18 percent of the city’s ad dollars.”
While an individual biweekly community newspaper may not have a huge following, collectively the sector commands a lot of eyeballs. And parts of it are particularly important for reaching immigrant communities. And city ad funding can be vital for keeping this part of the press alive, and maintain a vibrant and healthy media in the city.
“Because those messages often convey essential information, people who receive them have an advantage over those who do not .The city’s choices about where and how its messages are delivered have important public policy consequences,” the report says. “Those decisions also matter greatly to the publications that stand ready to disseminate the city’s advertisements. In the challenging world of newspaper publishing, being tapped as a repository of city ads can be the next best thing to winning the lottery.”
Blame for the disparity is dispersed among several players, which might itself be part of the problem. The city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services structures the contract that covers all ad placements, which the report says unnecessarily exclusionary financial criteria to decide who qualifies for city advertising. Those contracts are currently held by two ad placement firms, Miller Advertising Agency and Creative Media Agency. Individual city agencies can instruct the ad placement firms on what publications they want to reach, but the report says agencies increasingly rely on the firms themselves to structure the campaigns.
Miller did not return a phone call and email seeking comment. Creative Media said in a statement, ” ”Creative Media Agency has always had the highest standards for ethics and professionalism and we work hard to meet these challenges and demands. Creative Media Agency does not choose which publications are utilized by City of New York agencies. Individual representatives from each city agency, both large and small, make the decisions and requests as to which publications are used for specified advertisements.”
The CUNY report recommends that agencies tool their future advertising campaigns to make broader use of the ethnic and community press. It adds that the City Council and comptroller could use their oversight powers to force more diversity into the city’s advertising campaigns.
The predicament facing the ethnic and community press—of which City Limits, which does receive some city advertising, is a member—might sound like media inside baseball. But it could also be seen as part of a larger discussion about how government behaves as a consumer.
From the debate over whether city pension funds should divest from firearms companies to the controversy over imposing living-wage requirements on developers receiving city subsidies, it’s a conversation about whether the city is using its massive financial power in an efficient or just way.