A reader writes:
I have a feeling this might be a bit of a tough sell for you, but I’m going to take a shot anyway. Is this really about craven people making immoral decisions? It seems to me that what’s going on is that market conditions are pushing journalists to sponsored content. I’m sure there’s a spectrum of feelings about the morality of sponsored content – that some folks are more ok with it than others. But I’m certain lots of people at the very institutions you’re criticizing feel more or less as you do.
Companies that do sponsored content aren’t doing it to fatten an already-wide profit margin. It’s not about buying yachts and champagne. Here’s the problem: the market has moved into a place in which lots of publications have to use sponsored content in order to survive. I don’t know, but I have to think that choices are being made between firing people and taking the sponsored content.
This is the thing about markets. No one has any control over them. And sometimes, the numbers just don’t line up. And it’s like we have this panglossian idea that if the market says it, it’s for the best. Sometimes it’s not. Sponsored content is a pure product of the market, and it sucks. I guess I’d urge you to try to be a little bit more compassionate about the pressures your colleagues face, even as you speak out against the trend. And also to please try to continue to hold the line yourself, if you can.
This is an absolutely fair point. In my defense, I’ve tried not to cast absolute moral aspersions on those running fake articles for money. It’s possible for well-intentioned people to be swimming in market forces they have no option but to co-opt. I doubt Jill Abramson is thrilled to be doing what the NYT is doing with sponsored content. But Mark Thompson has over-ruled her, and for understandable reasons. Yes, of course, the media economy is currently brutal. Serious journalism used to be subsidized by many things – classifieds, comics, and sports coverage bundled in with foreign policy; lucrative advertising in scarce paper sources, etc – that have disappeared entirely. Something has to replace them for journalism to survive this technological onslaught. At the Dish, we do not have the resources (yet) to invest in the kind of deep reporting that requires big budgets that require big revenue. I get that. I also get the fact that some people are doing their best to manage this balancing act while not throwing out every ethical guideline we ever had in this business.
But it is still a terrible precedent to attempt to pass off ad copy as editorial with phony words and crafty design. Go check out TPM’s home-page today. A third of it is taken up with a huge chunk of space for a fake article by Phrma above the fold; a Phrma ad below it; and a big section on the side as a vehicle for Phrma’s propaganda, with some token TPM copy and AP stories as filler. At some point, you might be forgiven for wondering where TPM’s coverage ends and where Phrma’s propaganda begins. As I said at Buzzfeed more than a year ago, there is a real danger that you could be destroying the village in order to save it.
And the consequences of letting down the drawbridge so completely have yet to be seen. I suspect that online, in a relatively short time, branded journalism will be more plentiful and more lucrative than actual journalism, that readers online will get used to there being no real difference between corporate messaging and editorial writing, that the blurred lines will become fuzzier. I suspect that, having used the media in this fashion, the propaganda industry will soon move on to create their own media products – videos, listicles, fake articles, etc. – without the help of journalism at all. And when they do that, there will be so little left to distinguish it from what used to be clearly definable places for editorial content that the very idea of the fourth estate – independent and able to challenge all concentrations of power, economic and governmental – will disappear.
I’m not writing these critiques to demonize my fellow journalists – least of all, Josh, who is a dear friend – but to take a stand because so many others are now compromised by the very fake journalism I oppose. I do it because I have a rare platform to air this issue, which is flying way below the radar of most readers. I know it won’t make me friends – I love Ben Smith, for example, and don’t exactly love railing against his enterprise – but I feel it’s a duty to raise these concerns. If I come off as a bit moralizing and pious, I apologize. But I will not apologize for defending the principle of an independent press. It’s what having a blog of your own is for.