GE Brings Vox To Life

The enmeshment of the new media site with corporate interests – in which Vox writes ad-copy for big companies, while also claiming to cover them objectively – is not new to Ezra Klein:

GE provided crucial support for media startup, an explanatory-journalism site launched by former Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein, with whom it already had a working relationship. While Mr. Klein was still at the Post, GE courted him and others for a news website and marketing campaign in development. When Mr. Klein left to join Vox, GE and its ad dollars followed. The GE site, launched after Mr. Klein left the Post, aggregated video clips and content featuring the blogger, along with Fox News’s Bret Baier, Politico’s Mike Allen and others, discussing and expounding on the news.

The advertiser had “absolutely zero influence” on’s editorial content, said Jim Bankoff, chief executive of parent company Vox Media. But both GE and Vox have a similar audience in mind: young, relatively affluent and policy savvy. For GE, the purpose of the relationship was to get GE in the minds of policy makers and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. “We want to target the DC millennials,” said Linda Boff, who heads GE’s global brand marketing. The Vox sponsorship ended in August.

The merger of corporate interests and what’s left of journalism is only getting deeper. And the younger generation of liberal journalists is leading the way, and is shocked, shocked that anyone might question the appearance of blatant conflicts of interest. But a reader wants to make a distinction:

In your post “Ezra Sells Out“, you seem to be confusing Vox, which is Ezra Klein & Co’s media venture, with Vox Media, the overarching company that owns along with a number of other media outlets like Polygon and Curbed.

I don’t disagree with the brunt of your post, but it seems a bit underhanded to title the post “Ezra Sell Out” when it is likely that Ezra Klein probably does not have much agency in the story here. I just think using Ezra’s name here implies that he’s responsible for this, when really this decision is being made by Nelson and Bankoff, who run Vox Media at large.

Fair point. Another reader:

Sure, you may have confused Vox Media with Ezra’s Vox news venture.  But perhaps you should dig a bit deeper into Vox Media.  Forget the CEO; he’s just a hired gun.  Who really owns Vox Media?  Who, to put it a better way, is the Andrew Sullivan of the Vox Media empire?  Perhaps not Ezra (though both he and Mathew Yglesia are listed on the Vox Media leadership page as Vox Founders) but rather … Jerome “MyDD” Armstrong and Markos “Daily Kos” Moulitsas.  For all their screaming, shrieking, progressive liberal “corporations are not people” expose the truth reputations, they ought to know better.

And of course, is it not just a hair bit ironic that in one company you have perhaps the four giants (Kos, MyDD, Ezra, Yglesias) of the early progressive blogosphere?   One could only imagine the feigned outrage they would project if, say, Glenn Reynolds and PJ Media started drafting ad copy for the Koch Brothers, Halliburton, and the NRA and then claimed to be completely unbiased.

Meanwhile, it’s worth looking back at our coverage of Vox when it was first announced back in January:

[Vox Media CEO Jim] Bankoff told Ad Age that he has no intention of “tricking anyone” with alternative forms of advertising such as sponsored content or “native” ads — which other new-media growth stories such as BuzzFeed have said they believe are a key part of the future of content. Instead, the Vox CEO said he is counting on Vox’s ability to produce better-quality display ads that will bring in more revenue than the standard banner or site takeover. As he described it:

“We really are in the process of reinventing what brand advertising can be on the web… we believe it can be engaging and beautiful and well integrated [and] fully transparent — we’re not trying to trick anyone like some native ads do…

The beat, it goes on …

Native Dress

Lauren Sherman checks in on the place of sponsored content in fashion blogging:

[W]hile fashion has been slow to adapt digitally in so many ways, it was one of the first group of marketers to embrace native advertising. When fashion bloggers emerged in the mid-2000s as the new influencers, brands developed “gifting” programs to seed their products. A handbag line, for instance, would send a top 10 blogger the latest style in hopes that she might write about it, or post a photo of it on her blog with a link back to the brand’s e-commerce site. It wasn’t so different than the business of celebrity placements, when brands give a star a pair of jeans or a leather jacket in hopes that she’ll wear it in a well-publicized paparazzi photo.

However, as blogs transformed from diaries to media properties, bloggers began asking for more.

If they were going to post about the product, they wanted to be compensated for the post as well– in addition to the commissions they were making via affiliate links. Today, native advertising can be quite sophisticated. One of my all-time favorite examples of native advertising is a Juicy Couture-sponsored video, where stylist/Glamourai blogger Kelly Framel interviews Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele [seen above]. This was soon after “In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye” had come out: Cerf de Dudzeele waxed on about why she loved track suits, and Framel — a genuine fan of the famous stylist — asked her the right questions. Sure, it didn’t save Juicy Couture from combustion, but it was a nice little Hail Mary moment. Nars’s video series with Garance Doré and the Man Repeller are more recent examples of likeable native advertising. Both Dore and TMR founder Leandra Medine are believable Nars customers, which makes the already fun videos — watch them here and here — all that more compelling.

But as more and more bloggers find their audiences fleeing URLs for other platforms — namely Instagram — and brands have begun to think harder about what they want from these partnerships, frustration has bubbled up on both sides. Bloggers argue that brands aren’t upfront about what they’re looking for in terms of tangible results, and brands argue that bloggers are unable to deliver anything tangible. The champagne might still be flowing, but the party is wrapping up for unhappy brands and frustrated bloggers.

Fashion journalism, of course, has always been less a conflict of interests than a mashup of them. But it’s all so subjective that any idea of objectivity is remote. Nonetheless, it’s always great to find a writer who is indifferent to all this payola, whose taste is her own, whose prose caters to no subsidy. But how on earth can they make a living these days? The internet lets a thousand flowers bloom, but, in the end, only a handful get the water and the fertilizer, let alone the care and attention of the experienced gardener/editor.

The Fusion Of Journalism And Advertising, Ctd

There isn’t even a fig-leaf any more. The reporter and the copy-writer are exactly the same person over at the Mail Online:

Mail Online runs journalists’ bylines on the [native advertising] pieces, a move designed not only for transparency but also for commitment to sponsor content being held to a high standard …

A recent example of this is a monthlong campaign kicked off last week for T-Mobile. Mail Online pitched the carrier with a content program that’s part of a larger ad package for T-Mobile’s new home-networking technologies … That’s where Mail Online’s U.S. technology and science editor Mark Prigg comes into the picture. In the first of five sponsored offerings, he was enlisted to create the first piece of the program, a detailed examination of the “10 surprising hacks to improve your home’s technology for FREE.” The piece is wrapped Screen-Shot-2014-10-15-at-3.02.44-PMby a T-Mobile advertising “skin,” and carries “Sponsored by T-Mobile” in blue. Unlike other publishers, Mail Online does not file its native ad stories in a sponsored section — this piece is in its science and tech vertical.

Prigg is also the “journalist” who reviews T-Mobile products for the paper. And what’s fascinating to me is how so many editors have not struggled with this obvious conflict, but regarded all criticism as absurd: “It’s amazing the debate continues to go on when advertorials have been around forever,” says Mail Online North America CEO Jo Steinberg.

Arianna Huffington has also proudly announced that HuffPo staffers will now be directly embedded in an ad agency to create the native ads that will run on HuffPo. There is not even a scintilla of concern about the journalistic ethics of that. As for whether the surrender of journalism to advertising is actually selling anything – well:

There’s more evidence that the impact of sponsored content, a hot trend in advertising, is hard to measure. According to a new report from the Content Marketing Institute, only 23% of business-to-consumer marketers polled said they were successful at tracking the return on investment of their content marketing program. That figure rose to 43% for marketers who said they had a written content marketing strategy.

And the beat goes on …

When Journalism Fuses With Advertising

I’m a broken record, but here’s a new development in the surrender of journalism to public relations and pap: “Collectively.” It appears as a new news site that seeks to emphasize the positive in the world:

Today’s media is obsessed with fear-mongering tactics, and a pervasive pessimism that would have us all believing that “everything is f*cked, and it’s all our fault,” which has had the undesirable effect of making people feel alienated and ineffectual, unable to figure out what they can do to alter the current path we’re on. Collectively will break through that negativity and cynicism to help people learn how they can help. Take meaningful action. Choose to make a difference.

A sort of Upworthy with added Zoloft and a touch of Xanax – perfect for “sharing” on Facebook as an expression of your own personal virtue. And, of course, you keep waiting for the catch, the poll-tested euphemism that will tell you what this site is really about – because you can see no advertisements at all, and there are no subscribers … and … ah, yes … bend over, here it comes:

Collectively symbolizes a new synergy between industries, institutions, and people that moves beyond blame and fault to focus on positive change.

“A new synergy between industries, institutions, and people?” Has your bullshit detector gone off yet?

The founding partners – Unilever, The Coca-Cola Company, Marks and Spencer, BT Group and Carlsberg – wanted to help build a non-profit platform open to the voices and opinions of as many different organizations and individuals as possible. We’re ridiculously excited by the list of highly energized participants who are already on board, and this is just the beginning. VICE Media’s creative services division, VIRTUE, was selected by the founding group to create and curate Collectively with complete editorial independence.

So this is a site directly funded by major corporations to tout their own alleged virtues – and, as Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan notes, it’s a site “run with ‘complete editorial independence’—by an ad agency.” Which is to say Vice‘s. Nolan reports on all the corporations involved:

Vice, Diageo, Dow, Facebook, General Mills, Google, Havas, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s, Microsoft, Nestle, Nike, Omnicom, PepsiCo, Philips, SAB Miller, Twitter, and WPP, among others.

I’ve been warning for a while that when established journalistic outlets whore themselves out to corporate propaganda through “sponsored content”, they are playing a mug’s game. The only reason these companies are paying these media outlets to disguise their ads as editorial copy is because they can still trade on those outlets’ residual reputation. But as native advertising cumulatively undermines that reputation, magazines and newspapers will lose their luster. Instead, corporations will simply fund and create their own pseudo-journalism directly, and cut out the middleman altogether.

This isn’t some future specter; it’s already here.

The NYT’s Guru Of “Re-Purposed Bovine Waste”

Every now and again you come across a quote that tells you everything you need to know about what’s going in journalism. It’s from the New York Times’ pioneer of native advertising/sponsored content/brand journalism, Meredith Kopit Levien. Her blather about deceiving readers into believing they’re reading journalism when they’re actually reading advertising was brilliantly skewered by John Oliver over the summer. Now over to Joe Pompeo:

Levien watched the clip for the first time the next day with Times publisher and chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who encouraged her to have a good laugh over it.

“I think John Oliver is hilarious, and I think he did the most clever take one could have on the risks and downsides of native,” Levien told me a month later during an interview in her glass-enclosed 19th-floor office with enviable Hudson River views, though she admitted: “It was my first experience with random people tweeting negative things at me.”

Her rebuttal? “The best way to preserve editorially independent, high quality journalism is to preserve the business model. And I think the idea of branded content that shares a form factor with editorial is a great first step.”

Let’s look at that quote a little more closely, shall we?

The best way to preserve editorially independent, high quality journalism is to preserve the business model.

But the NYT is not “preserving” the business model. If it were, Ms Levien would not have a job. The NYT would be relying on advertising as it always has  – and clearly distinct from its editorial side. She was brought in explicitly to change the business model, by fusing advertising and editorial so that it becomes increasingly hard to tell the difference between the two, and thereby to get higher rates from advertisers. She was brought in to sell the newspaper’s core integrity for revenues. Then this:

I think the idea of branded content that shares a form factor with editorial is a great first step.

How does a person who speaks English translate that? “Branded content” is what we once called advertising. “Shares a form factor with editorial” means an advertisement designed to look as much like editorial as possible. So let’s put this in English:

The best way to preserve expensive journalism is to change the business model so that corporations will buy advertisements at higher rates because we promise to disguise them as editorial.

And that, one realizes with a shudder, is just a “great first step.” I wonder what the second one will be, don’t you?

Sponsored Content Watch

A reader says “it’s getting worse” and points to new evidence:

“Good Morning America” interviewed model Gisele Bundchen and Olympic athlete Lindsey Vonn this week about their new Under Armour campaign, but not necessarily for the pure news or entertainment value of it all. At the end of a segment on Friday morning, a voiceover told viewers that “This segment was brought to you by Under Armour.”

In a pair of dual interviews, one that aired Thursday and the other Friday, the women discussed partnering with Under Armour, the power of women, their workout regimens and their own careers. “GMA” has also posted the videos online without mention of any Under Armour support, although Friday’s video has the straightforward headline “Lindsey Vonn and Gisele Bundchen Promote the ‘I Will What I Want’ Campaign.”

An ABC spokeswoman said segments brought to you by marketers are not unusual for “Good Morning America,” but could not point to other examples.

Watch the “segment” for yourself here. Another reader:

I’ve been following the gossip blog, Lainey Gossip, for a while. And they do this thing with sponsored content where they talk about it openly and freely. And they make it fun. But that’s sort of part of the problem with sponsored content. On the other hand, the way they do it feels much more honest and open. And I continue to trust the blog because of their transparency. Here’s the latest example:

Butt season continues! As I mentioned last week Cottonelle approached us to highlight their bum-pampering products by highlighting the best celebrity butts in Hollywood.

This job doesn’t suck. Jacek was quite happy to do extensive research on the subject and eagerly forwarded several recommendations. JLO was our first. Next? Let’s make it fair and celebrate on the men’s side…

Channing Tatum.


And you know, just like JLO, who’s making videos about her “Booty”, I really don’t think Channing Tatum would mind. After all, he gave us an entire movie – over two hours! – to appreciate this body part. He worked hard on this body part. He trained it. He molded it. He danced with it. He TOOK YOUR MONEY WITH IT.

When it’s that valuable, you have to protect it. Even the bums that might not be as perfect as Channing Tatum’s. Cottonelle takes bum service very seriously with their industry-leading products. This is premium bum care, the gold standard of bum appreciation and indulgence.

Then there was HuffPo’s gleeful but very carefully parsed defense of the same practices. I took solace only in the reader comments. Two faves:

Oh, I get it. This is an advertisement for advertisements masquerading as news articles, which is itself masquerading as a news article- about advertisements masquerading as news articles. Very meta. Also kind of nauseating.


I like that the only comment positive about this piece is from the Head of Operations for the site…

Read all of our coverage on the scourge of sponsored content here.

The NYT Caves Further To Sponsored Content

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.

Here’s why:

“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.

Now check out the Washington Times’ latest gambit with the Washington Redskins:

In 2000, then-editor Wes Pruden of the Washington Times blasted Dan Snyder’s efforts to control the flow of information about the Redskins as “chickenshit” tactics. Last week, the same newspaper agreed to give that same owner unprecedented control over that same flow of information about the same team. And all parties celebrated the deal. “The Washington Times and the Washington Redskins announced a unique partnership that will make the newspaper a content and marketing partner of the team,” said the joint press release.

And check out Condé Nast’s new venture as a marketer for Monsanto:

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 12.36.38 PM

Let me repeat: “Each episode will be stylishly arranged in a controlled environment, to create an authoritative and journalistic forum.” If you want your journalism stylishly arranged in a controlled environment to buttress the brand of a corporation, then you know to go read Condé Nast publications.

Sponsored Content Watch


A reader sends the above screenshot:

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:

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 2.51.19 PM

Previously noted examples here of the ever-growing scourge of sponsored content. Update from a reader:

If you think things are weird on the journalism side, try going toward entertainment. New companies are trying deliberately to muddy the waters.

Dissent Of The Day

A reader writes:

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.

The Whoring Just Keeps Getting Worse

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?