A Sign Of The Times

We are all perfectly aware of the terrible pressures on the media industry right now. We’ve all but lost the physical thing we used to sell entirely. Advertizers have so many other options. Readers are used to reading for free online (however economically nuts that is for media); and newspapers are in free-fall. Any sane person would expect some radical experiments in getting the whole thing to work again. What I didn’t fully expect was the sheer speed and totality of the editorial surrender to the business side; and the almost rapacious move toward handing over the very fonts and headlines and by-lines to advertizers and p.r. merchants as if there were no real difference between writing to sell something and writing because it’s true and your opinion or product of independent reporting. After all those speeches and papers and conferences and J-School lectures, the media jumped immediately into an area once deemed verboten, and rolled around like Cartman in Kyle’s money.

In a rare exploration of this in mainstream media (which is busy become mainstream p.r.), the Guardian’s Emily Bell takes stock:

This week the New York Times unveils a new website design. Part of it will be a new native advertising push, with posts clearly labelled “paid post” and bearing a blue line of demarcation. In a detailed memo timed perfectly to coincide with the holiday break, its publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr, told staff that the new native advertising platform for the organisation would be digital and very clearly marked. It followed an announcement a month earlier by Time Inc., that the magazine publisher would dramatically increase the amount of native advertising it carries. The question that the FTC is concerned with is that of transparency in the mind of the consumer. Is it clear where funding for programmes and articles is coming from?

Separating the church of editorial from the state of advertising is more difficult in digital media; everything is necessarily melded together more closely, and the context or “furniture”, which is hard to miss in a newspaper or during a broadcast, is stripped away as files zip round the web. The anxiety over transparency is understandable, particularly when it comes to vulnerable markets and toxic products, like loan companies, insurance schemes, lobbying and gambling products.

Two question marks hang over native advertising, which will become more significant this year.

For the producers it is the longevity of the trend. At the moment the curve of enthusiasm for the approach, and ignorance about its benefits or impact, are both at a high, which is the point at which companies make money. This is unlikely to last.

For the consumer it is the issue of transparency. It is easy to become very exercised by the potential of native advertising for good and ill. It is arguably a relatively benign part of a much more embedded trend.

Every person and institution can now make their own messages and potentially have as much impact as the largest corporation. The occlusion of motive is becoming more problematic in many areas of communication, but at least in native advertising there is an identifiable commercial transaction. When CBS’s primetime current affairs show 60 Minutes recently ran an exclusive interview with Amazon boss and new newspaper owner Jeff Bezos, it pitched him no hard questions and allowed him to demonstrate his potty scheme for deliveries by drone. This was not advertising, but nor was it really journalism; the access the programme gained reduced its appetite for inquiry and analysis. Advertising is everywhere, as fluid and malleable as the streams it inhabits. And increasingly there will be no lines, blurred, blue or otherwise.

The NYT public editor is already sensing the blurred lines. From her assessment of a NYT advertizer using a manipulated A.O. Scott tweet without his permission:

This is not native advertising. However, on the very week that native advertising is scheduled to begin in The Times, this episode does give one pause about keeping the lines between editorial content and advertising perfectly clear and well-defined.

A reader chimes in:

Perhaps this would be of interest in light of the Dish’s recent interest in “native advertising”: In David Foster Wallace’s famous 1994 essay in Harper’s, “Shipping Out” (later re-titled A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again in the book of the same name), the author wrote about the pernicious effect of advertising posing as art – not for its threat to journalistic ethics, but for the psychological effect it has on those exposed to it. In the brochure for the luxury cruise on which he is about to embark, Wallace found an experiential essay written by the late author and former director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Frank Conroy:

Conroy’s “essay” appears as an inset, on skinnier pages and with different margins than the rest of the brochure, creating the impression that it has been excerpted from some large and objective thing Conroy wrote.  But it hasn’t been. The truth is that Celebrity Cruises paid Frank Conroy up-front to write it, even though nowhere in or around the essay is there anything acknowledging that it’s a paid endorsement, not even one of the little “So-and-so has been compensated for his services” that flashes at your TV screen’s lower right during celebrity-hosted infomercials.

And below Wallace expounds the real dangers of this “essaymercial”:

In the case of Frank Conroy’s “essay,” Celebrity Cruises is trying to position an ad in such a way that we come to it with the lowered guard and leading chin we reserve for coming to an essay, for something that is art (or that is at least trying to be art). An ad that pretends to be art is—at absolute best—like somebody who smiles at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s insidious is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real substance, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.