Hospitals adopt local newsletters Marketing: Local medical centers and community newspapers are joining forces, and both sides find it helpful. Some readers aren't so sure, though.

August 08, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

When neighborhood activist Shephard H. Burge started a community newspaper in Cherry Hill this year, he made the announcement not in the neighborhood but in a fifth-floor conference room at Harbor Hospital Center.

The Cherry Hill Net Worker is funded in large part by advertising from the hospital. "And they've told us they'll do whatever they can to help us," Burge says.

Which makes sense: Burge is promising to use the paper to support a proposed hospital development that some Cherry Hill residents have stalled with objections to its location.

Across the city, several other hospitals -- including Bon Secours, Agnes and Church -- have had similar ideas. So in neighborhoods from Violetville to East Baltimore, medical institutions are assuming a traditional community function: funding and printing community newsletters and papers.

"You're finding hospitals doing this because it's good for business," says Bob Knott, director of external relations and marketing for Bon Secours. "But many of the communities want the help. They need us as much as we need them."

Hospitals have long distributed their own publications in communities and advertised in community publications. But the direct funding and support of community newsletters is a newer phenomenon, which has raised questions in some minds about the newsletters' independence.

"The hospitals have every right to give money to these newspapers," says Lenox Coles of Cherry Hill, a vocal opponent of hospital expansion projects. "But I have a problem with the community newsletters and newspapers accepting the money. Reason tells us that you're not going to bite the hand that feeds you.

"At the very least, people need to be aware of where the money for their community newsletter is coming from," he says.

Burge himself is worried about the trend. From here on, because of community suspicions about his ties to Harbor Hospital, he says future newspaper events will not be held there. And he doesn't let the hospital actually edit or pay for the printing of his paper.

"That would be too much control for them," he says.

On average, it costs about $200 to publish a few thousand copies of a neighborhood newsletter. But many communities say that without the support of hospitals, they would not have the money, time or energy to produce a paper.

"If it weren't for Harbor Hospital, we wouldn't have the Brooklyn Beacon. We couldn't afford to print it and keep it going ourselves," says Gloria Bartas, who compiles information for the newsletter before turning it over to Harbor Hospital for editing and printing.

'Quite good marketing'

For hospitals, the money is a small but effective investment. It builds good will with community leaders, and helps to market hospital services at a time when medical institutions are enticing people to use an expanding range of outpatient services.

"It is quite good marketing for hospitals" in the era of managed care, says Gerard F. Anderson, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Hospital Finance and Management. "Hospitals are now very interested in attracting healthy individuals to their services, and this is a good strategy for developing those contacts."

In Southwest Baltimore, St. Agnes Hospital prints community newsletters in Violetville and Morrell Park. Mary Lou Kline, president of the Morrell Park Community Association, says she delivers a computer disk to the hospital each month; hospital personnel attach an advertisement and a few days later return the printed copies to her.

The hospital has asked just once for something in return from Violetville or Morrell Park, community leaders say. Kline says she was asked to write a statement of support for a new St. Agnes care unit, "which I was glad to do," she says. "I was born there, and they saved my mother's life once."

Blended copy

The hospitals' control over content varies. In Brooklyn, where the Beacon consists largely of small articles submitted by community members and institutions, Harbor Hospital edits the entries -- though only for space, the editor says -- and adds some of its own to fill out four pages.

The hospital wanted to control production to make sure the Beacon came out regularly, says editor Bartas, who launched the newsletter last year with Harbor's help.

"It's bad business for the hospital if the neighborhoods around lTC them are falling down, and we need the support," says Cynthia Tensley, president of the Carrollton Ridge Association. "I don't see Bon Secours as taking the place of the community."

Tensley's newspaper, the Carrollton Ridge Communicator in West Baltimore, is one of the few hospital-funded publications to address a central objection of critics -- that the newsletters don't make their source of money clear to readers.

"Made Possible Through the Generosity of the Bon Secours Hospital," each issue says above the front page banner.

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