According to a story by MediaPost Editor in Chief Joe Mandese (full disclosure: Joe and I have lunch once every three to five years; I honestly can't remember who bought last time), NBC News and Forbes.com now not only encourage advertisers to cross the dividing line between church and state, they help advertisers design their videos to assure they look as much like their own news stories as possible. They defend this shameful practice by saying idiotic things like "Native advertising is really just more relevant advertising," and "If it’s great, it gets a lot of page views," and " ...consumers expect advertisers’ content to be more integrated with their overall news consumption."
It is one thing for sleazebag websites to try and trick users into clicking on ads that look like site-produced content, rationalizing it with "in the online age, people interact differently with advertiser-supplied content and often value it," but it is another matter when legacy news organizations think that the income justifies the breach of trust with their audiences.
I get that as revenue declines on the print side of the news business, they cannot be entirely recaptured by the digital side. I understand that it costs a fair amount of money to produce a TV news website with a 24-hour news cycle – and, since audiences won't pay for it, the revenue has to come from somewhere. But as our world becomes increasingly digital, the only hope for legacy news businesses to survive is to maintain trust with their users. Conning them into watching advertiser-"sponsored" video isn't the way to do it.
Not that this is a new practice. For years local market TV stations used video supplied by PR firms or sponsors themselves to save on production costs, rarely if ever disclosing that what they showed viewers was not a product of their editorial judgment, but rather a well-disguised bit of marketing.
Now that fragmented audiences are spending their media time all over the place, news organizations are fighting to maintain ad revenue in the facing of declining audiences. Not always successfully. Newsweek is just the most recent example. It doesn't help that the Internet can provide dozens of ways to access the same or similar coverage for free and allow audiences to avoid subscription or pay-per-view fees. It also doesn't help that when given an online choice, consumers lavish their advertiser-craved attention on celebrity-focused trash at the expense of news produced by thoughtful, intelligent – and, for the most part, responsible news organizations.
Publisher Katharine Graham, who in my experience was something of a shrew contrary to her glowing biographical legacy, once made a series of speeches to try to defend the fact that the Washington Post was a monopolistic newspaper in D.C. and so was capturing a frightening share of the local ad market. In the talks she made the legitimate point that news organizations can only prevent encroachment on news judgment by advertisers, and remain "objective" if they are financially stable and can essentially tell those who might pressure them with economic threats to back off. True dat.
To me, this notion of "native advertising" smacks of economic weakness. Advertisers will push the envelope as far as the news groups will permit. That is part of their job. If three or five years from now, NBC or Forbes expects to have ANY credibility as news organizations, they might want to rethink this whole approach. The generation that has been raised in the digital era already has a very hard time separating the wheat from the chaff. Let's not make it any harder.