The Natives Are Feckless: Part One Of Three

Let's suppose you were to navigate to the Web site of The Philadelphia Inquirer, a once proud broadsheet that in the extremis of chaos economics will now sell itself for a crack hit. Or let's say you were to blunder onto Mediaite, an aggregator that has never demonstrated any dignity to speak of in its brief, content-squatting life.

In either place (and many more) you might spy a provocative headline. No -- not the one that says “Could this be America's Next Blockbuster Cookbook?” which is pretty obviously a piece of “native advertising” clickbait sleazily designed to look like ordinary, pandering editorial clickbait. No, not that one.

I’m talking about this: “The End of Barack Obama?”

Also clickbait, but presented as a standard headline suggesting The Philadelphia Inquirer and Mediaite have created or editorially linked to a piece of journalism. But lo and behold, this headline doesn’t link to journalism at all -- it links to some dubious, for-profit peddler of doomsday investment strategies.

Well done, media institutions. You have whored yourselves to a hustler. Your good name, such that it remains, is diminished accordingly, along with your trustworthiness, integrity and any serious claim to be serving the public. Indeed, by bending over for commercially motivated third parties who masquerade as bona fide editorial contributors, you evince almost as little respect for the public as you do for yourself.

There’s your native advertising for you. There’s the revenue savior being embraced by Forbes, the Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Business Insider and each week more and more of the publishing world. According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, sponsored content of various kinds was a $1.56 billion category in 2012 and growing fast.

That seems like a big number, but bear in mind that U.S. ad revenue in newspapers and magazines was $40 billion in the same year -- and that (rapidly diminishing) sum does not create profitability. Which means that publishers are not only selling their souls, they’re barely extending the lives of their businesses in so doing. On the contrary, they are accelerating their own demise, because no reader will long patronize those who wantonly deal with the devil.

The natives are restless, and also feckless.

There would be nothing wrong with native advertising, of course, if it were clearly demarcated as promotional material created by an advertiser. But it is very seldom clearly demarcated, because that would defeat the very point: to obscure the content’s commercial adulteration. The only variables are the degree of subterfuge.

Put aside the financial scammers and similar megasleazebags for a moment. Let’s think instead about the most common label currently affixed adjacent to native advertising in the name of supposed transparency: “Sponsored Content.” Those words tell us next to nothing, and certainly not the plain truth. The word “content” itself invites the audience to confuse such stuff with editorial matter created by journalists maintaining an arm’s-length relationship with the subject. And “sponsored” doesn’t reveal much, either.

Isn’t genuine editorial matter also sponsored content? Yes, in the 300-year-old mass media/mass marketing covenant, the audience has always gotten the content for free (or heavily subsidized) and the advertisers have picked up the tab. But within that covenant, till now, it has been deemed categorically unethical for the advertiser to so much as influence the editorial, much less blur the lines between the advertising and the journalism.

Yes, I know. I know. Much of the magazine industry has been a brothel for a century. But not the news and public affairs part of it. And while some local newspapers have been intimidated by their big car-dealer, real-estate and supermarket advertisers, the firewall between the journalists and the business side at newspapers and news magazines of quality has been largely sacrosanct.

Until the chaos scenario began.

As the business models of magazines and newspapers collapsed, the firewalls toppled, too. It’s a tragedy and a surprise; I had thought they were, in the architecture of journalism, extensions of the foundation.

None of this handwringing and gnashing of teeth is to suggest there is no future for branded content. If anything, digital disintermediation means that marketers no longer need third-party publishers to reach an audience. And more on that subject coming soon in this space. The question for now is what to do now. But it is no conundrum, nor structural problem, nor Gordian knot. Nope. It’s simple:

Disclosure. 

Next week’s column will propose exactly how. But till then, here’s a brief hint. You know that “End of Obama?” headline?  It ran on the NBC News Web site, too. And I could find in that very little fault. Maybe NBC should be a little more cautious of what ads it's being served by its various native-ad-network partners, but there was the doomsday link along the right rail…

… in a box, with a blue screen above it, and three different versions of the word “ad.”

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10 comments about "The Natives Are Feckless: Part One Of Three".
  1. Patricia Wilson from Brandcottage , August 5, 2013 at 8:39 a.m.
    Thank you Bob. Someone had to say it. The entire web will become one big sponsored piece of edit, which wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't disguised as "news" instead of advertising.
  2. Al DiGuido from Optimus Publishing , August 5, 2013 at 8:58 a.m.
    Bob...What you are seeing in the demise of newspapers & magazines in terms of advertising revenue is the demise of quality sales organizations. You should ask each and every publication that is in decline about the depth and scope of their sales training efforts. My sense is that this is NON EXISTENT. Publishers have become lazy and are no longer thinking about training sales organizations on demonstrating the real power within the intersection of quality content that engages a readers interest & need with advertising. As someone who has led sales and marketing organization for Ziff Davis and others...we trained our salespeople agressively and consistently...We sold advertising at high cpms because we were able to prove that the editorial environments were engaging..PUFF editorial like you describe isn't engaging anything but the ego drive of the marketer into the foolish belief that readers are valuing this presentation. There is a way to do Native Advertising & Special Interest Publishing. While I can't read your mind..I am sure we would be in agreement on the tactics to accomplish it.
  3. Janet Chiu from CyberTurf Strategic Media , August 5, 2013 at 9:41 a.m.
    When I sold ads for a newspaper, the firewall between news and advertising didn't serve the readers as much as the journalists claimed. The newsroom never examined the firewall and would seldom support new layouts and changes that could make the publication better for readers. Any serious discussion was an unthinkable breech. This current trend is pure irony.
  4. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston , August 5, 2013 at 9:42 a.m.
    The subtext here is, of course, too obvious to type. Good thing my AdBlockPlus was turned on, or I'd have been offended, too.
  5. James Webb from Massive Strategy , August 5, 2013 at 11 a.m.
    Thanks for writing this, Bob. The publishing industry has now reached (or dropped to) the same status of elected officials in DC. I am so very disappointed in all of them.
  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , August 5, 2013 at 11:12 a.m.
    I could tell you some stories about the Inquirer and what brought them to their knees to now. It starts at the top including owners who are oblivious to/ignorant of publishing, their own agendas, squeezing profits, prestige and some have no place else to go. True, that many of the sales staff is inefficient but not for the simple reasons as AG above mentions. Although I am totally in support of the separation of editorial and advertising, editorial can get nasty and insulting. The attitudes of some of the management tore/tear departments apart. This is not the forum to dish more specifically. If there is interest for details, please contact me through MediaPost.
  7. Melissa Prince from INSP Television Network , August 5, 2013 at 11:13 a.m.
    Saw this over the weekend and had similar thoughts. However, I didn't articulate it NEARLY as well as you did, Bob. Hear! Hear!
  8. Steve Hall from Adrants , August 7, 2013 at 1:02 p.m.
    It really is that simple, Bob. Disclosure, The AdverPost advertorial unit on Adrants (which, by the way, has been around for over ten years and well before all this content marketing hullaballoo) has always carried the disclaimer, "The above is a paid advertisement or Adrants promotion." And the background sets it apart from editorial content. Now I don't say this to pat myself on the back or anything. Only to boil this down to its simplest notion. Advertising is advertising and editorial is editorial. There may be a merging of the two in the form of content marketing and inbound marketing but the reader should easily be able to determine the difference. As publishers struggle to maintain any kind of revenue stream, desperation will run rampant. And as Al mentioned above, the industry has become a bit lazy and unfocused regarding the approach to sales. One can only hope this does not turn into more of a train wreck that it already is.
  9. William Hodges from AdSupply, Inc. , August 7, 2013 at 3:22 p.m.
    I made some similar points at OMMA recently during the Native summit. No one wants to hear it though because it's big $$. I think the real issue behind the issue is the fear advertisers and publishers have with creating a fair market value exchange with their consumers. Everyone has leaned on fake free publications for so long, the public really thinks it's free. Welcome to the land of devaluation. If consumers don't know why they should pay for it (with their attention and time), and advertisers and publishers are afraid to ask, then how else can this trend go? It will continue to devolve into animosity between the parties. You're dead on, native ads will escalate the mistrust and devaluation process of publishers more rapidly.
  10. Brian Stemmler from Stemmler Productions , August 7, 2013 at 6:52 p.m.
    If you use Reddit as your news reader, then you learn how to become a discerning consumer of information. I don't think any firewall will stop this tsunami. Perhaps the Paywall will give a publication the financial support it needs to turn down the more egregious forms of native advertising. In the end I think the consumer and the collective voice of social media factchecking will be responsible for delineating truth from fiction.