Tom Allen, general manager of WKOW-TV, says his recent letter to local medical professionals seeking "potential partners to educate the community on health issues related to your specialty and others" was never meant to blur the lines between news and advertising: "It's a sales and marketing initiative that's Internet-based."
Allen confirms that these partners will pay WKOW to be included in this "category sales" offer, called "Health Connections," similar to the "Home Connections" list of home-improvement experts now on the station's website. But he stresses that the listings have "no tie whatsoever to news."
The appeal, however, says WKOW "takes pride in being a news and health information leader in the Madison area" and promises that those who participate will have "the highest possible visibility for each specialty and...be positioned as an authority in your field."
An Associated Press article on the initiative got picked up by the Chicago Tribune and mentioned by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. UW Health has bristled at the appeal, as did UW podiatrist Alan Kalker, one of the recipients of Allen's letter, telling Isthmus: "I imagine Walter Cronkite turning over." But after hearing from WKOW's sales rep, Kalker agreed the deal involves "some element of separation" from the news department.
Allen says that the station made a "blanket" offer to area practitioners - "I probably signed 800 letters" - but that the opportunity to be presented as "an authority in your field" will go to the first person in each specialty "who says I want to be part of Health Connections."