Guess Which Buzzfeed Piece Is An Ad

Since I’m going to be discussing forms of new media revenue with Friend of the Dish, Ben Smith, later today, I though it might be worth noting some aspects of Buzzfeed’s innovative model, i.e. “sponsored content” or “native advertizing”. I should start by saying I’m not trying to criticize anyone who’s trying to make new media work financially. We don’t know what works and there are various options. But Buzzfeed’s model is a hot topic – as was the Atlantic‘s resort to “native advertizing” in the Scientology fuck-up.

So let’s take a specific example which caught my eye the other day. Here is Buzzfeed”s post on Sony’s Playstation 4 posted yesterday at 8.07 pm. Despite being billed as “The Only Post You Need To Read About The PlayStation 4,” it was actually preceded by this post on Buzzfeed the day before about the same event, titled “11 Things You Didn’t Know About PlayStation”. The difference is that the February 19 post was “sponsored” by PlayStation and the February 20 one was written by two staffers with by-lines. Go check them both out and see the differences (an off-white background and acknowledgment of the sponsor) and the similarities (in form, structure and tone, basically identical).

To my eye, the two are so similar in form and content, I have a few questions to ask of Ben later today: were the people who wrote the first Sony-sponsored post employed by Buzzfeed or Sony? Or was it a team effort? If it was a team effort, why no Buzzfeed by-lines? Or did the same people write both the promotional copy and the journalistic copy?

Now go a little deeper on the sponsored page about the PlayStation 4. Here’s a screen shot of what you see on the side:

Screen shot 2013-02-21 at 12.04.18 PM

Were these sponsored or real?

The second post was put up on the same day as the first Sony-sponsored post, with the classic Buzzfeed headline: “10 Awesome Downloadable Games You May Have Missed”. But all of the posts in the sidebar above were sponsored by Sony, even though, as you can see, they are not distinguished as such. Once you slip into the advertorial vortex at Buzzfeed, everything that is advertizing appears as non-advertizing. Just keep clicking. When you’re on Buzzfeed proper (if that’s the right term), the sponsored posts are delineated, ethically, as I noted above, by an off-white color background that subtly makes them different and an acknowledgment of the sponsor.

So I don’t see an ethical line being definitively crossed here – just deliberately left very fuzzy. Maybe I’m old-fashioned but one core ethical rule I thought we had to follow in journalism was the church-state divide between editorial and advertizing. But as journalism has gotten much more desperate for any kind of revenue and since banner ads have faded, this divide has narrowed and narrowed. The “sponsored content” model is designed to obscure the old line as much as possible (while staying thisclose to the right side of the ethical boundary). It’s more like product placement in a movie – except movies are not journalism.

So my core worry is: who writes and composes these sponsored posts? Are they done in collaboration with Sony? Or does Sony do it all? Are any of the sponsored post writers also writing regular posts? If they are, what credibility does Buzzfeed have when actually reviewing PlayStation 4? By the way, here’s the end of their review:

Screen shot 2013-02-21 at 1.29.54 PM

And so we get a tease for what might well be a future Sony-sponsored post. I have nothing but admiration for innovation in advertizing and creative revenue-generation online. Without it, journalism will die. But if advertorials become effectively indistinguishable from editorial, aren’t we in danger of destroying the village in order to save it?

Update: To read the rest of the posts in this thread, go here.

The Atlantic Apologizes

In a classy way – and they are reviewing the entire strategy. That’s great – and the swiftness and clarity of their apology does indeed, as my old friend TNC notes, show that their integrity endures. That matters to me because I deeply love the institution and respect its writers. But the more I have read about new advertizing strategies online the more relieved I am that we are trying – and trying is the best I can say so far – to stay out of this advertizing business.

Obviously sponsored content from Scientologists, with Atlantic employees systematically removing negative comments, is self-evidently awful. But I have to say I tend to agree with Pareene: why is the Church of Scientology more objectionable as “sponsored content” than, say, Shell or Intel or IBM? Here’s a video entirely provided by Shell:

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This is corporate propaganda, not journalism. Yes, it is identified as such – but on the video page, actual journalism by brilliant writers like Alexis Madrigal is interspersed with corporate-funded propaganda. You can easily mistake one for the other.

Here’s another screen shot that troubles me:

screenshot_atlantic

The author of the second article is one Martin Duggan. What’s his journalism background?

Martin Duggan is the vice president of market strategy, responsible for
driving strategic efforts across IBM’s Cúram product portfolio and
evaluating new markets. He has 20 years of social enterprise experience
working in a variety of delivery, strategy development, and consulting
roles and is viewed as a social services thought leader around the
globe.

On the same page, we have two other ads by IBM, an infographic by IBM, two more stories written by IBM, three links to IBM pages, and one IBM video. It’s made legit by a tiny box up top, which you have to roll over to find out that:

Sponsor content is created by The Atlantic’s Promotions Department in partnership with our advertisers. The Atlantic editorial team is not involved in the creation of this content.

Did IBM also provide the art? Then I went to Quartz, the company’s new global business site. Two out of the first ten pieces I saw on the main-page last night were written by corporations, Chevron and Cadillac, presumably in collaboration with the Atlantic. (The Cadillac has now gone, replaced by another identical Chevron “piece”.) I’d like to know as a subscriber and former senior editor who exactly on staff helped write those ads, and how their writing careers are different than that of regular journalists. Jay Lauf, for whom I have immense respect, said this about the strategy of “native ads” – or what I prefer to call enhanced advertorial techniques:

“A lot of people worry about crossing editorial and advertising lines,
but I think it respects readers more. It’s saying, ‘You
know what you’re interested in.’ It’s more respectful of the reader that
way.”

Read this piece and see if you agree.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that readers do not expect great magazines to be artfully eliding the distinction between editorial and advertorial with boosterish ad campaigns from oil companies. Usually, those advertorials are in very separate sections in magazines – “Sponsored By The Government Of Dubai” or something – but integrating them in almost exactly the same type and in exactly the same format as journalism is not that.

I can understand companies sponsoring real journalism in inventive, dynamic, interactive ways. Magazines need advertizing to survive. I also understand how banner ads are useless for many big companies. I also realize that keeping the Atlantic alive requires herculean efforts in this tough climate. But please, please, please remember that the most important thing you have at the Atlantic is your core integrity as one of the great American magazines. I see no evidence the editorial staff has compromised that in any way and regard their writers and editors as role-models as well as journalists and friends. But there comes a time when the business side of a magazine has to be reminded that a magazine can very gradually lose its integrity in incremental, well-meant steps that nonetheless lead down a hill you do not want to descend. I know they are principled and honorable people there; and I know they understand this. But please know that this stuff makes an Atlantic reader grieve.