Advertising Digital Publishing
8 mins read

Is sponsored content destroying journalism?

closeup of currency

Whether you call them advertorials, branded content, sponsored content, or native advertising – they’re something that typically divides the world of journalism into two separate tribes.

On one side, we have the old guard of journalists who firmly believe newsrooms must preserve their objective nature and should never collaborate with brands to help them masque their advertisements into content that looks like editorial. From their perspective, the church-state division is there for a reason; native advertising is unethical, deceptive, it shows disrespect for media consumers, and it might even push journalism over the edge, to the point of no return.

Some editors don’t have anything against native advertising and on the contrary they argue that  if it’s incorporated properly, sponsored content could bring great financial benefits and help publishers protect their businesses, while also bringing value to readers. Indeed, research says native advertising currently generates 18% of overall advertising revenues, and publishers expect it will reach 32% by 2020.

So, who’s right?

Well, giving a final verdict is not that simple.

When two worlds collide

The burning issue with native advertising penetrating the world of journalism, lies in the following, simple fact: journalists are expected to unbiasedly report, with their end goal of accurately informing the public. When sponsored content comes into the picture, the motives change as their goal becomes profit-oriented. Journalists then agree to tell stories that fit a certain brand’s marketing objective, and they do so in exchange for money, which automatically undermines their professional role.

But is it really that black and white?

If the model of native advertising is so bad, how come some of the most reputable newsrooms and legacy publishers such as the Time Inc.The New York TimesThe AtlanticThe New YorkerThe Wall Street JournalThe Local, and many others – use it effectively within their business strategies?

Before we roll up our sleeves and try to sort out this ethical dilemma, it’s good to point out two key things that will help us analyze the problem from all angles:

  • Editorial independence has become a great challenge today, for more reasons than one
  • Digital news publishers that are not publicly funded have to find a way to financially support themselves and continue bringing important stories to their audiences

This is the reality we need to acknowledge before we start accusing newsrooms of “selling out”, or pushing ideals that are not quite sustainable in the 21st century. Banner ads are becoming history, so main business models for digital news publishers include either paywalls, memberships, subscriptions, donations or native ads. More often than not, publishers will combine different ways of generating revenue because they need all the financial help they can get – and not forgetting the fact that some publications may not be well suited for a business model which is reader-funded anyway.

Taking a closer look: a few critics, inside and outside of the heat

In 2014, the famous British comedian and political satirist, John Oliver, took down native ads in an incredibly witty episode of his show. Oliver’s stand was pretty clear: the editorial side and the business side of news need to remain separated, and ads must not be camouflaged in news. During this episode, Oliver touched upon the deeper issue here and the responsibility we all have as media consumers (although he didn’t provide a sufficient answer to the key question):

How is press supposed to be independent if no one is willing to pay for it?

The year before, Andrew Sullivan who stands behind a reputable subscription-driven blog The Dishcriticized native advertising as well: “I have nothing but admiration for innovation in advertising and creative revenue-generation online. Without it, journalism will die. But if advertorials become effectively indistinguishable from editorial, aren’t we in danger of destroying the village in order to save it?”

Some see native ads as ‘the necessary evil’ that will help newsrooms survive, while some take a much more grounded perspective, such as Derek Thompson from The Atlantic: “Advertising does a good thing in the world. It pays great journalists to find and tell the truth. It’s a tradition worth preserving through both experimentation and severe transparency.”

While we’re at it, The Atlantic is a great example of both how not to do native advertising and how to do it properly. In 2013, the reputable publisher created a full page advertorial for the Church of Scientology, but took it down within 24 hours due to obvious (and inevitable) controversy and public pressure.

Those responsible apologized and admitted the mistake. Since then, The Atlantic has updated their branded content rules and guidelines and have done a pretty good job at distinguishing editorial content from sponsored content, giving full disclosure to readers about the type of articles they are consuming.

But not all publishers are equally transparent and not all readers get the idea – or the distinction.

If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…

It turns out media consumers are not that good at spotting sponsored content nor are they educated enough about the difference between paid and unpaid (editorial) content. This has a lot to do with the ambiguous nature of native ads: while they are not trickery, they are meant to blend in – publishers are legally bound to label them correctly, yet they are produced to look just like editorial content.

When they encounter a piece of sponsored content, many media consumers will perceive it as an editorial piece. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it’s a duck, right? Well, it’s more of a pigeon with an identity crisis, but many just hear the quacks. They can’t tell the difference and that’s the issue.

In the US, the concept of native advertising in journalism has a long history and so do the attempts to regulate it in order to preserve trust. In 1912, Congress passed the Newspaper Publicity Act, which sought to clarify the issue. There’s also the FTC’s guidelines to native advertising which fundamentally calls for transparency and use of clear language to indicate sponsored content. For instance, if you see “presented by” or “brought to you by”, it might send a mixed message that the story is funded by some benevolent brand that decided to show support for journalists and help them cover that particular topic.

These gray areas mustn’t be exploited. As Joe McCambley, the founder of the company that helped design the first banner ad cleverly noted, native advertising is a “very slippery slope and could kill journalism if publishers aren’t careful” as it can lead towards “gambling with the contract you have with your readers.”

Now, here’s something you probably didn’t expect: it seems that some media consumers don’t care if the content is sponsored or not, as long as it’s good. One piece of UK research showed 57% Millennials don’t mind engaging with sponsored content if it’s appealing and of value to them. Hmm, interesting, eh?

This brings us to possible ways of ethically incorporating native advertising into editorial content, and – in doing so – it shines a different light on journalists in this context.

Journalism is not necessarily in decline, but it’s definitely changing

When it comes to native advertising, newsrooms – and the journalists working in them – still have a sacred role and must not be foolish to diminish it. They are in control of choosing the branded stories they are willing to put in front of their readers, which puts them in a rather empowered position. These stories don’t necessarily need to reflect the opinions of the editorial team (in most cases, there is a disclaimer about that), but they must be truthful, relevant and useful, and align with the quality and branding their readers are used to.

Take The New York Times’ paid post, Women inmates: why the male model doesn’t work for example. It is a real and important story that puts a topic which is typically marginalized back in the center of attention. The post has been sponsored by Netflix as part of their campaign for the new season of Orange is the New Black, but does that fact destroy its value for the reader? Not really.

This is where many get native advertising wrong. Unlike traditional, outdated marketing practices that are interruption-based, native is permission-based. It is not as aggressive and it focuses on providing value to the recipients and establishing more meaningful relationships with them. Of course, brands do have an underlying goal of making a profit of some kind, which is why transparent labeling is needed when these types of posts appear within editorial content.

Newsrooms have to be careful when allowing sponsored content. Some publishers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have dedicated in-house teams of commercial content creators. As Meredith Kopit Levien, the COO of The New York Times has said: “We would share the storytelling tools. But we would never share the storytellers.” By keeping the production of native ads away from journalists, publishers are trying to protect the profession from the inside.

The whole new problem emerges when publishers give full access to brands and enable them to publish whatever they please, without overseeing the process.

Can journalists embrace native without betraying their readers?

In 2015, South Park has released a hilarious episode we can all relate to, in which Stephen falls down the rabbit hole of online ads and sponsored content and describes the agonizing feeling of continuously trying to chase the news, but failing to catch it.

When it comes to journalism – and in spite of reports of declining trust – we still perceive it as a noble profession, so we get a bit offended when we get treated like consumers instead of respectful readers. The truth is, these two are not mutually exclusive and money does not grow on trees.

People don’t hate advertisements per se, but they do hate being sold to and feeling like they’ve somehow got tricked by business. The most clever and highly targeted ads that don’t feel intrusive can actually be helpful to potential buyers.

However, we are exposed to thousands of brand messages every day. According to the marketing firm Yankelovich, the number of ads we’re exposed on daily basis can reach as many as 5,000 (and do bear in mind that this data is over a decade old, which means now the number may be even higher). Traditional ads create clutter and annoyance, which is why users have evolved to develop banner blindness.

So, what’s left for brands that are looking to nest in the digital world? Native ads. Those with intelligent staff and the biggest budgets know just how much native ads can be effective when they are turned into the ethos, tone and style of the specific publication and tailored to meet the needs of the specific readership.

If journalists choose to bring exposure to brands by giving them a chunk of their publishing space, they need to be responsible about it. They need to act as filters and keep their audience in mind at all times, and they must hold brands accountable and be fully transparent about publishing sponsored content. This is the only way to continue doing their jobs properly while protecting the trust bond they have with the readers.

by Mia Čomić

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.