Here’s a reminder of why “sponsored content” should be anathema to a free and independent press: E.B. White’s letter to Xerox after the company sponsored content in a 1976 issue of Esquire:
A funded article is a tempting morsel for any publication—particularly for one that is having a hard time making ends meet. A funded assignment is a tempting dish for a writer, who may pocket a much larger fee than he is accustomed to getting. And sponsorship is attractive to the sponsor himself, who, for one reason or another, feels an urge to penetrate the editorial columns after being so long pent up in the advertising pages. These temptations are real, and if the barriers were to be let down I believe corruption and abuse would soon follow.
Not all corporations would approach subsidy in the immaculate way Xerox did or in the same spirit of benefaction. There are a thousand reasons for someone’s wishing to buy his way into print, many of them unpalatable, all of them to some degree self-serving. Buying and selling space in news columns could become a serious disease of the press. If it reached epidemic proportions, it could destroy the press. I don’t want IBM or the National Rifle Association providing me with a funded spectacular when I open my paper. I want to read what the editor and the publisher have managed to dig up on their own—and paid for out of the till. …
The funded article is not in itself evil, but it is the beginning of evil, and it is an invitation to evil. I hope the invitation will not again be extended, and, if extended, I hope it will be declined.
At the time, the NYT covered the uproar over the Xerox-sponsored content:
The article by Mr. [Harrison E.] Salisbury, former associate editor of The New York Times, provoked editorials around the country and protests from writers who feared that it would set a precedent for encroachment by advertisers into the traditionally independent editorial side of journalism. Under the arrangement, Xerox paid Esquire to commission Mr. Salisbury to write “Travels Through America,” a 23-page article that took six months to complete. Mr. Salisbury was paid $40,000 plus $15,000 in expenses. Esquire in turn received a contract for a $115,000 advertising package from Xerox for one year.
The agreement stipulated that Xerox would not interfere with or have any influence over the article, but would run full-page ads at the beginning and the end of the article. If the corporation did not like the essay, Esquire would be free to publish it, without returning Xerox’s money, but without identifying it with Xerox in any way. “It was an experimental idea and since the big corporations sponsor television specials and other cultural enterprises, I saw nothing wrong with it,” said Mr. Salisbury yesterday to Mr. White’s criticism. He added that “magazines are suffering from lack of funds to pay their writers. “I’ve had no bad feedback from the article and if it is done just like our arrangement, that’s fine,” he said. “It worked like a charm.”
The NYT is prepping a report on this phenomenon, which is now spreading like wildfire in online media and in danger of becoming the norm. It’s a rare moment when the press has covered this issue – perhaps because the NYT is one of the few media brands self-confident enough to take it on, without worrying it will need to go there in the near-future.
(Hat tip: Ernie Smith)