Not buying into native advertising

Blurring editorial and advertising is a sign that we aren't willing to pay for a free and independent news media.
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John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.”

Only the day before, I had come across a Nieman Journalism Lab article about a new report looking at the news-consuming habits of millennials.

The article quoted 19-year-old Sam from San Francisco.

“I really wouldn’t pay for any type of news because as a citizen it’s my right to know the news,” Sam said.

The next morning, I came downstairs to find my wife, Sara, looking at her laptop, laughing at a segment from HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.” Host John Oliver was talking about native advertising, also called sponsored content or branded content.

Sam from San Fran, take note, because your presumed “right to know the news” for free is directly connected with what’s so wrong with native advertising.

Newspapers have struggled with online advertising, Oliver noted, because banner ads are so ineffective. Enter native advertising, which is a fancy way of describing ads that are designed to look like news stories.

BuzzFeed’s founder is quoted as saying that 100 percent of his company’s revenue is from branded content: gems such as “10 life-changing ways to make your day more efficient,” sponsored by GE.

‘That was the heart’

But BuzzFeed is new media. Surely old media still respects the wall separating the editorial side from the advertising side, or what is sometimes referred to as the separation of church and state.

Alas, Time’s CEO said his editors are now “working for the business side of the equation. Quite frankly, I think they’re happier, they’re more excited about it. Because no longer are we asking ourselves the question, ‘Are we violating church and state?’ whatever that was.”

An incredulous Oliver replied:

“Whatever that was? That’s like a surgeon saying, ‘Hey, I found this squishy thing in there, all bloody and gross, so I removed it, whatever that was.’ That was the heart. That was the thing that made the whole thing work. You needed that.”

Newsrooms have always faced the challenge of keeping advertisers from influencing their editorial content. When I was first starting my newspaper career at the Sedalia (Mo.) Democrat, I contributed to an annual special section called the “Progress” edition. It was a not-so-veiled way to generate additional ad revenue with cheery stories about the business community.

But in nine years of covering business in Sedalia and, mostly, at the York Daily Record, I can honestly say that I never felt pressured to do an advertiser’s bidding. That wasn’t my role; it’s no reporter’s role.

To me, native advertising is dangerous, for the news media but also for advertisers. The value of journalism is its independence, which a news organization should be loath to compromise. News coverage, or what we call earned media, is valuable because it can’t be bought — as an ad can be. And if the distinction between news and advertising becomes nearly indistinguishable, doesn’t it devalue news more than it elevates advertising?

No free lunch

It seems to me, the Internet and social media have already conspired to devalue news. From the Nieman Lab article, based on a report from the Media Insight Project:

“Only 47 percent of the millennials surveyed said consuming news is a major reason they visit Facebook, but 88 percent of the respondents said they get news from Facebook at least occasionally. 83 percent said they get news from YouTube on occasion, and 50 percent found news on Instagram. Next in line: Pinterest at 36 percent, Twitter at 33 percent, Reddit at 23 percent, and Tumblr at 21 percent.”

But while those social media channels may serve as conduits to news, Facebook, Twitter and their brethren don’t have news operations. They merely traffic in the work of legitimate news organizations that can’t seem to stop giving away their content. (Nor do they seem willing to explain their worth, leaving it to John Oliver to devote 11 minutes to the topic.)

Blame publishers, blame advertisers, but also blame consumers who have bought into the notion that there is a free lunch, such that you can expect ever-lower retail prices and high-paying manufacturing jobs.

“ … [B]efore we demonize these organizations for selling out, it is worth remembering: this is all at least partially our fault,” Oliver said. “A press cannot be free and independent if nobody is willing to pay for it. And it seems, nobody is going to.”

Certainly not Sam from San Francisco.

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