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, TheWashington Post, TheGuardian, 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:
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.”