Here’s the thing: Native ads are just advertorials by another name, and advertorials have long been published by news organizations of the highest standards, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker. Those “special advertising sections” are the native ads of print, and they’ve been there for decades. … In a perfect world, journalism would be paid for entirely by readers and publications’ interests would align with them and them alone. But while Andrew Sullivan and Consumer Reports can make a go of that, 99.9 percent of journalists and their organizations cannot.
I don’t disagree. But those advertorials were never designed to look as much like the rest of the magazines or newspapers, and were labeled “advertorial” or “advertising”. And they were embedded in physical products where you could directly compare them with the actual copy elsewhere, highlighting their difference. Online, a web page is easily detached from its context (85 percent of Buzzfeed’s pages are viewed with no context from the home-page) and so far more susceptible to being viewed as legitimate editorial, rather than a fake article, especially when the framing is identical to a regular page. Chittum argues that the “much more dangerous aspect of advertising is the self-editing or outright censorship big advertisers can prompt on the news side”:
Tobacco companies’ products killed 100 million people in the 20th century, most of them after scientists proved they caused mortal diseases. … Journalism was so addicted to tobacco advertising that the press at least sometimes censored itself when covering the cigarette companies. The New Republic, for instance, a few years before Sullivan got there, squashed an investigation on Big Tobacco’s insidious media strategy because Marty Peretz foresaw “massive losses of advertising income.”
Time, also around the same time in the 1980s, deleted anti-tobacco references from an advertorial pushing healthy living, and a spokesman actually said this to the Chicago Tribune:
“Time, as does Newsweek, has a lot of cigarette advertising. Do you carry material that’s insulting to the advertiser?”
And that was when the media was minting money. With the press now in a far weaker position, the temptation to self-edit is surely stronger. That’s potentially a far bigger problem than native advertising, particularly when the latter is well disclosed.
I agree that it’s a big problem, and likely to become much worse. That’s why we highlighted the extraordinary fact that journalists at Time Inc. now report directly to those on the business side seeking ads. Both are awful – and will contribute to a nadir in trust for anything in journalism, if they haven’t already.