The debate about native advertising rages on. In fact, the debate about what native advertising is is even louder. But the recent shakeup at The New York Times has reinvigorated editors and publishers alike to wrestle with a future without separation of church and state.
The “leaked” NYT memo brought to the surface the internal angst around the future of “the Grey Lady,” but the debate rages all over. Some of the harshest criticism of the practice of native advertising (for the purposes of this article, we are defining native as sponsored content) comes from Andrew Sullivan, founder of The Dish, speaking at Harvard's Nieman Lab.
To those journalists engaged in native he says: “It used to be an axiom that the job of journalists was to be resistant to that (sic) and sustain the clear distinction between advertising and journalism. One side has effectively surrendered.” About those who engage in native he says, “That’s not journalism, that’s copywriting. It’s advertising!”
The problem with such a debate is it just doesn't matter. Now wait, before ad folks say I'm missing the point or journalists decry my disregard for objectivity, we need to go back to the basics. The term "native advertising" can be traced back to an OMMA conference in 2011 when Fred Wilson, managing partner, Union Square Ventures, talked about "native monetization." The idea of native has always been about the money.
Sullivan himself calls it "the complete transformation of the economics of journalism."
Lost in the rhetoric is that journalism has always been about the money. The traditional model that has shaped journalism and advertising has been the same for over a century.
Someone (a publisher, a producer) has something to say, people (consumers) are willing to pay a fraction of the cost to hear/read it, and advertisers are willing to pick up the rest of the tab for the chance that a consumer will listen to their message as well.
The impetus for this “blurring of the lines” is audience fragmentation. Advertisers became less willing to pick up as much of the tab because at any given time, they were reaching fewer consumers. The model had to change. Is native the answer? We don't know yet. But the reality is that directly or indirectly, advertising has always funded the conversation.
Yes, there is opportunity for brands to deceive and journalists to sell out, but historically the marketplace has been the system of checks and balances, and there is no reason to think it will fail us now. As Renee Milliaressis, COO of Mindshare NA, puts it: “If either side sells out, the consumer won’t buy it; it being either the editorial product or the consumer product.”
Native advertising is continually evolving, and one of the best examples yet is a recent Wired/Netflix article. It is an interesting article that should have been written, with or without Netflix. Netflix should have written it, and Wired should have published it. (Personal note: I do happen to currently be a Netflix subscriber, but if they take "Law and Order" off their streaming service, I'll cancel it again. With or without the Wired article.)
Debate is good but let's stop kidding ourselves: One can tell interesting brand stories without objectivity, and readers can be entertained by content that brands want to share. In the very memo that prompted this article, even The New York Times admits, "Increased collaboration, done right, does not present any threat to our values of journalistic independence."
Yes, the natives are getting restless, but can't we all just get along?