Balancing Eyeballs, Wrecking Balls and Hardballs: Journalistic Integrity and Native Advertising

wallNewsrooms always put up a solid wall between the business and journalistic sides of publishing. This wasn’t something imposed by readers, viewers or listeners, but by the newsrooms themselves. For journalists it was a point of ethics, and they spent many hours discussing the ethics of influence. Being a journalist means that people trust you to tell them what they can’t see; if they can’t trust you do that, then you lose your ability to speak.

To see these ethical standards at work, just look at the ethics sections on places like AllThingsD or TechCrunch. Writing on the Huffington Post, Associated Press Standards Editor Thomas Kent points out that a key way to identify a journalist is asking “Does the person or his organization guard against conflicts of interest that could affect the product? If conflicts are unavoidable, are they publicly acknowledged?”

This barrier between journalist and business interest is becoming increasingly muddled thanks to native advertising. These strategies are very interesting for those of us who need to reach the audience of a given publication, but there is also worry about eroding the very integrity that public relations is designed to harness, thereby hurting just about everything we do.

Back in the 90s as a young news producer I tried launching a business segment. My ultimate boss, the station general manager, the woman who approved my paycheck each week, walked into the newsroom and handed me a company to profile. Of course it was a potential advertiser, something I didn’t realize until after running the story. We killed the segment not long thereafter.

Still, in small-town New York State, this semi-permeable wall was the norm; commerce influenced coverage. Big cities and big newsrooms had the luxury of building a far more solid barrier, and it was a regular topic in journalism school. We’d spend hours every Friday discussing the role of influence, what constituted influence and its impact on reporting. One of my favorite professors exhorted us to not eat the food put out at press events, lest we be influenced by some really great smoked fish.

In This Town, Mark Leibovich points to all the ways in which politicians and journalists become influenced by the money and access that flows freely around the former swamp on the Potomac. In this world, parties, fame, cash, food and access are all commodities, as long as no one openly admits to being influenced. In this world, Hardball host Chris Mathews can move from the political world to the “journalistic” world without missing a beat. The whole thing makes turning down a spread of bagels laughable.

This obviously has great implications for someone in PR, which is, after all, about “influencer relations.” Our goal is to be ethical even as we position our clients to be part of journalists’ stories. It can be a tough balance. An extreme case in point is Miley Cyrus. Sure, her antics gain lots of attention and selling albums, but is the attention she’s receiving helpful for the long-term viability of her brand? Sinead O’Connor seems to think not, though Cyrus acknowledges that her antics sell music. Why should she stop?

Here at HB we operate in the business-to-business world and don’t often encounter cases as extreme as a foam-finger-waving, hyper-sexualized, barely-of-age twerker on national television. Well, not yet, anyway. I haven’t had a client CEO publicly swing naked on a wrecking ball (at least not our client).

With this balance in mind, news organizations continually face a tough decision: how far do they go in trying to make money while also informing the public? What do they give up when placing one above the other?

The other day I sat in a meeting of people participating on a hyper-local blog and the subject of hiring came up. Given the troubles facing hyper-local news, including cutbacks at AOL’s Patch and layoffs at the Boston Globe hyper-local sections we broached the idea of hiring a full-time reporter to do the daily work of collecting news and information. To do so, of course, means having some sort of budget and among the ideas were display ads and native advertising. Display ads got shot down as impractical and native advertising had an “ick” factor that seemed to turn off nearly everyone in the room.

Still, local publications have begun embracing the concept. In a Digiday article, one editor noted that asking local organizations to pay for press release placements isn’t all that far afield from what they had been doing. “Preston Gibson, director of development at the Cape May County Herald said, ‘The content is the exact same content we’ve published [in print], but now we’re getting paid for it.’”

The fear, according to the purists, is a blurring of the lines between content that is paid and that which is editorially independent. Over on Business Insider, Henry Blodget points out that entertainment has always paid the news bills and sites like Buzzfeed have simply built on that concept.

Journalism snoots love to snicker about Buzzfeed’s cat pictures. What they’re missing is that Buzzfeed’s formula takes a page right of the playbook of traditional media: Successful publications and networks in print and TV have always funded expensive journalism and news with feature content with broad appeal.

The best course of action here is to clearly let readers know when they are reading “sponsored” content. As an example, traditionally we’ve understood when an ad is on TV, it interrupts the flow. Now, however, many shows are selling the content itself. Watch Hawaii Five-0 and see the good guys drive GM vehicles (the model names carefully written into the script) while the team uses Microsoft products. That’s advertising, but a lot less overt.

On the digital side my fear is that even with clear notification readers won’t really notice.

Years ago as a freelance writer I did a story about a local tea store for a beverage magazine. The shop’s owner loved the piece, but kept calling it an “ad” and even offered me free tea (I turned it down, see above). The idea that she confused a paid advertisement with an editorially independent article bugged me. She wasn’t the only one. How often do we hear people quoting something they heard about on a TV advertisement as “fact”? When a person argues a point and references something “they read,” do we question the source of the information?

While the stakes may be low when reading a car review and one may go easy on an advertiser, they rise considerably when that same level of influence is put behind more government-driven news, like a local article sponsored by a developer touting a change in zoning laws. This is already happening in the business-to-business tech media, in which many sites freely mix independent editorial content with paid submissions. The flags acknowledging paid content are often so obscured as to become irrelevant.

The bigger question may be “what’s lost?” If people don’t really notice or care when something is sponsored as opposed to editorially independent, then what happens to the quality, breadth and depth of the news they receive? How can they make informed decisions if the information itself comes from paid sources?

Chuck Tanowitz

About Chuck Tanowitz

Chuck’s clients rely on his expertise to help set strategy that combines content, social and media to reach customers, partners, investors and prospects. His clients include technology and manufacturing companies of all sizes and directions, from major manufacturing companies like Heidelberg, the printing giant, to consumer-facing startups like CoupFlip. Along the way he has worked with cloud computing, IT security, document management, content management, open source, energy and even food products.

Learn more about Chuck

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