At first, they were never going to do it; then they were going to do it just a little, with very high standards; now, they’re lowering those standards so as to blur even further the difference between an advertisement and an article. And this is the crown jewel of American journalism: the New York Times. AdAge has the scoop:
The New York Times has shrunk the labels that distinguish articles bought by advertisers from articles generated in its newsroom and made the language in the labels less explicit … Recent Paid Posts from Chevron and Netflix have replaced the blue moat that enclosed [an earlier] native ad with a slimmer blue line running only along the top. “Paid For And Posted By” has been trimmed to to “Paid Post,” and in slightly smaller type. The company logos, also slightly smaller, appear in a white bar that’s not as tall as Dell’s dark blue bar. And because Chevron and Netflix didn’t write their Paid Posts, their logos don’t appear by the author’s name. Instead “T Brand Studio,” the unit within the Times that produces content on behalf of advertisers, appears off to the left.
“Some form of labeling is necessary to make sure no one feels deceived, but beyond that I don’t think they need to have blinking lights,” said Scott Donaton, chief content officer at UM. “In general, if a client is going to create content, they don’t want the thing dressed up in way that pushes audiences away from it,” he added.
So to clearly label an advertisement an advertisement “pushes audiences away.” So the goal is to provide the smallest fig-leaf possible that gives the NYT plausible deniability of outright deception. And that’s entirely because of corporate pressure. Look at this page and see if you think most people would know it’s bought and paid for by an advertiser.
Perhaps this has already become the style at other prestigious media outlets, but I think it’s somewhat remarkable that the editors at The New Republic didn’t see fit to tell readers upfront that the article is sponsored content. (I apologize if I’m late to the party on this particular advertorial start on the part of TNR.) There’s no real differences in terms of front style or size with the only real tip-off being the lack of a byline. But I’ve interacted with enough smart people online to know how rarely readers, who aren’t themselves writers in some capacity, actually pay attention to, much less search for, the author to an article.
The sponsored status of the “article” is a little more obvious on the front-page:
Andrew, could you please stop referring to publishers who sell sponsored content as whores? It’s really offensive to whores.
Update from a reader:
This was meant as a joke, but our culture’s ease with the word “whore” and the ease with which sex workers are shamed is despicable. If you want to show someone is really worthless, say they’re a whore. Like the LGBT community, sex workers are a group whose existence challenges traditional sexual relations. Is the reason they are openly scorned that society feels they choose this, and maybe even that they profit? But even if you think that true (it’s not), we shouldn’t deplore a word that carries so much sexist hate.
Men can be whores just as much as women can. But point taken.
If you think I’m a crank on the surge of sponsored content replacing journalism, take a look at one big media company’s bet on the future:
The new [Yahoo] publications combine original articles and material licensed from other sites, as well as big photos and videos into an endless page of tiles aimed at enticing people to linger. Mixed into that stream is a different kind of advertising — so-called native ads or sponsored posts — which look almost exactly like all the other articles and videos on the page except that they are sponsored by brands like Knorr, Best Buy and Ford Motor. These ads, Yahoo hopes, will attract the attention of more readers and make more money for the company. In some cases, Yahoo editors even help to write that advertising — a blurring of the traditional lines between journalists and the moneymaking side of the business.
If Yahoo wanted to become an advertising or public relations company, I’d have no problem with that. But what they’re doing is deliberately deceiving readers on what is advertising and what is journalism, and using journalism as a cover for a lucrative public relations business. Here’s the industry consensus in a quote from the editor of Yahoo Food:
I think our involvement elevates the advertising. Our ability to bring editorial knowledge and finesse to advertising content makes it better and gives it a point of view.
And in so doing makes it more and more indistinguishable from editorial. That’s also the paradox of one of the recent native ads that got a lot of positive press:
Your watchful eye on the metastasizing world of advertorials and so-called “native ads” is an essential counterpoint to what’s becoming an alarming trend, even outside of US borders. Case in point: a series of unmarked oil industry advertorials that recently made it to print in newspapers owned by Canada’s right-leaning Postmedia. Hawk-eyed readers were able to connect the dots and alerted Advertising Standards Canada (whose webpage is emblazoned with the motto “Truth in Advertising Matters”). After a review, the organization decided not to issue a ruling.
An increasingly desperate oil sands industry is pulling out all the stops to curry public favour with Keystone on wobbly ground and the Northern Gateway pipeline being met with fierce public opposition. It’s discouraging to find that all too many media organizations are willing to undermine the tireless work of their reporters with deceptive advertising practices.
A Canadian economist, Robyn Allan, tried to write a rebuttal to a piece about the oil industry that she read in a Postmedia newspaper:
[She] took issue with the economic claim [that Canada is losing $50-million a day due to limited export markets]. When she submitted an opinion piece in response, she was informed it couldn’t be run because the article she was responding to was actually a paid advertisement.
It wasn’t labeled as such; yet, as our reader noted, Advertising Standards Canada declined to censure Postmedia, which owns nearly every broadsheet daily in the country. Then it happened again – another paid pro-oil-industry piece not labeled as such. It gets better:
Alex Mayyasi wonders why that those “recommended links” you see appended to so many stories on legitimate news sites seem to have gotten a pass in the sponsored-content debate:
On one hand, that might be understandable. Taboola links don’t seem nearly as deceptive as a full article. Over email, Taboola CEO Adam Singolda pointed out that companies like Facebook and Google host links or advertisements from Moneynews and the Aftershock Survival Summit. This author’s daily e-mail from The New York Times includes ads for financial products and mortgage sites just as scammy. Is Taboola sponsored content any different from trashy ads?
But in the case of scammy ads, the difference between an ad and a sponsored link is crucial. The illusion of journalistic integrity provided by the news publishers that host these “headlines” is key to the sale of these useless financial products, scam diet pills, and shady mortgage deals. “With Outbrain Amplify,” Outbrain tells customers, “links to your content appear as recommendations on the web’s largest content publishers including sites like Wall Street Journal, Reuters & People.com.” Bloomberg News, The Atlantic, and the other publications hosting sponsored links are not just hosting advertising for these deceptive sales pitches; they are enabling them.
See that little word above the sponsored content piece, paid for by TheEconomist and written by the editors? It’s called “Advertisement.” And good for Josh for using that word in that context. No one’s confused; the labeling is very clear; and TPM gets some revenue. So why do you think this standard is not applied to Phrma? It couldn’t be because they pay extra for the chance of deceiving readers, could it?
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”:
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.
Every now and again, it’s perhaps worth revisiting the entire definition of journalism. In my view, it is writers and editors attempting to tell the truth about what’s happening in the world to readers every day or more frequently. A journalistic institution that lasts builds a trust between its editors and readers so that no one is in any doubt about the sincerity of the enterprise, its freedom from outside interference, or its integrity as a form of communication.
My concern with “sponsored content” in vast swathes of online media – from the New York Times to Time Inc. and Buzzfeed – is simply that, by deliberately blurring the distinction between advertising and editorial, it must necessarily undermine this integrity and cast a doubt over that trust. It violates the core integrity of any journalistic institution to treat the prose of commercial interests as the equivalent of the prose of editors and writers – or to blur the lines between the two, by presenting commercial speech in extremely similar formats to editorial speech.
Am I being too purist? All I can say is that my position was once held by every journalistic institution you can think of only a few years ago. Back then, advertising was a revenue model that was self-explanatory, clearly differentiated from any article, and if it could in any way be confused with an article would have the word “Advertisement” attached to it. It was also assumed that the editor would know no specifics of the advertiser. The reader of a magazine knew that what appeared in its pages was written entirely by journalists and guided by editors. That is not purism. It is the basic ethical code of journalism as we have known it for decades.
And so we come to the deeply depressing news that Josh Marshall’s TPM has joined the throng. In introducing the series – a completely new step for TPM – Josh didn’t address the obvious glaring issue. Instead he wrote a post that doesn’t sound like him, and in fact reads like a p.r. press release:
Today I’m really excited to announce that we’ve launched a very cool new section to our popular Idea Lab vertical called Idea Lab: Impact, which is being sponsored by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. I’ve wanted to take Idea Lab in this direction for some time. Idea Lab focuses science, cutting edge technology, the tech industry and the economics, policy and politics that surrounds those issues and sometimes on the gizmos we all use everyday. Idea Lab: Impact will have a different focus. How is science and applied technology affecting real human lives?
On Friday, Josh responded to some brutally effective takedowns by Henry Farrell (it’s worth reading the entire debate, including the comments where Josh participated). His argument is that these are advertisements and are clearly labeled as such, but include text like an article because, well, er:
Our advertisers are policy focused and thus tend to have more complex arguments. They’re not just selling soap or peanut butter. There’s only so much of those arguments you can fit into a picture box or a video. They want room to make fuller arguments, lengthier descriptions of who they are and what they do, as you would if you were writing an editorial – in text, going into detail.
But they could do all that in a traditional advertisement: in their own font, attached to a real article, in their own color, with their own branding. We’d all know what it is. But this is not what Josh has offered them. He has offered them the appearance of being an article in TPM, and that offer is precisely and solely what makes sponsored content ads worth more than the others. If it were clearly an ad, that w0uld defeat the purpose of the enterprise, which is to blur that difference. So there is something inherently corrupting and unethical about this arrangement.
To quote E.B. White, stating the obvious, when discussing mere sponsorship of an article written by a journalist in Esquire in 1975: