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:
the native ad at the New York Times on female incarceration by Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”. Check it out here. It’s gorgeously produced, vividly presented – in ways more innovative and arresting in design than the NYT’s own editorial product! Yes, unlike Yahoo or Buzzfeed and the other whoring sites, there are markers that this is not produced by the editors of the paper. But then it gets a bit confusing because it was created by the NYT – by a
newly formed Brand Studio unit, which was built to create native ads for advertisers. The article was written by Melanie Deziel, an editor at the studio who worked in the past at The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. The illustrations are by Otto Steininger, whose work has appeared on the cover of The New Yorker.
So you have a journalist writing ad copy and a New Yorker artist creating visuals for an article that is created by the NYT, but is actually an advertisement. The cumulative effect, if the ads keep improving in quality, have more journalistic input and better graphics, is to make fake journalism less and less distinguishable from, you know, real journalism – journalism informed by an independent writer’s views, rather than paid for by a client.
This decision to merge advertising and editorial was driven by one thing and one thing only: money. As ad rates have dropped, websites have gone back to their sponsors to ask them how high they should jump to get some more love:
Last year, Ms. Mayer met repeatedly with Unilever executives and asked how Yahoo could improve. When she shared her thinking about sponsored content for some new digital lifestyle magazines, Mr. Master said, “We put our hand up and said, ‘We will do that.’ ” Unilever has since expanded its commitment to advertising on Tumblr and Yahoo sites.
Use your magazine to inject corporate propaganda into what appears to be independent journalism and “we will do that.” Quite why any self-respecting editor of journalist would do that is another matter. But self-respect went out a long time ago in this business, didn’t it?