Commentary

Pay for Placement? Fat Chance

Coming from a magazine background and working with scores of reporters who move from one job to another (or out of the media altogether), I am acutely familiar with the way the Internet and mobile have disrupted the business model for so many publications. I also know that the downdraft of online ad revenue -- due in part to exchanges, an excess of inventory and audience buying that made almost no site a "must buy" any more -- has negatively impacted online news sites as well.

Were all these issues not part of the media ecosystem, we wouldn't be having this endless debate about native advertising. Bottom line: I get it. I know it is hard, and that if you can figure out a new revenue stream, why not give it a shot?

But ya gotta draw the line somewhere. And here's where I do.

Earlier this week, I sent out a press release on the reshuffling of top management at a significant ad tech company, resulting in a new CEO. I tend to know who covers executive changes and who doesn't, but I went a little wider in my distribution because the new alignment points to a new direction for the company. The change was subtle, but it was in there and should be of interest to folks who cover this space.

Among those I sent the release to was an editor at WebProNews with whom I have worked on stories for years. He clearly decided not to run anything based on the announcement, which was fine by me since the site generally doesn't cover personnel changes anyway. But he routed the release to a Susan M. Coppersmith, Director of Sales & Content Programs, iEntry, Inc., who sent me this email:

... . Your submitted content has been accepted for inclusion in our Content program.  Please review our Content Program details. We offer a few different options for content submission that guarantees news and info gets published. You may submit content directly from a company you represent and we will put it in article format with author choice ( you/them or US) and we will  publish on WebProNews.com for $450. This includes press release content , video or Infographic. WebProNews had over 4.4 million unique visits last month !! (My note: not according to Quantcast, which put the number at 3.4 million -- but who cares, it's still a nice-sized audience).

Included was this example -- which, if you examine clearly, is not labeled in any way, shape or form as sponsored or paid content. In fact, it appears to have been gently rewritten and attributed to the WebProNews staff. If you go back to the section where this stuff runs, all you see is this: "WebProNews | Breaking eBusiness News Your source for investigative ebusiness reporting and breaking news."

So, the deal appears to be if they like your release "content," they give it to a reporter to flesh out and run as part of the news they feel of interest to their readers. If not, they bounce it over to Susan, who wants you to pony up $450 to have your release disguised as editorially produced content.

If you were to poll reporters, they would say that about 90% of the press releases they get are worthless spam in their inboxes and a pox on their lives. EXCEPT the ones they like and use as the basis for stories. (The ugly secret they would love to deny is the known fact that a vast number of news stories originate with a pitch or a release sent by a PR person.)

If you really want to have a wrist-cutting experience, go to the websites of any of the major press release newswires and read about 20 or 30 releases. You will see that most of them are full of promotional bullshit that has nothing to do with real news, and whoever wrote or approved them should be horse-whipped. So why not try to monetize the desire for pick-up?

With a pay-for-play system like this, you totally compromise your editorial credentials. The most valuable thing you have to attract readers (unless you are a Buzzfeed or Mail Online) is  credibility.  When it dawns on readers that what you are disguising as news is simply paid-for, slightly repurposed press releases, they will go elsewhere for their news, to someplace they can trust.  Yeah, we're back to that "native" debate again.

I get that no publication is obligated to run anything I send them. I try to make certain that what I send in press releases is truly newsworthy and absent any extraneous promotion and hype about the company. I expect my releases to be judged on editorial merits and "rightness" for a pub. If they meet neither criterion, so be it.

But if your new default is to try to get me to pay so that your readers get access to my press releases: I hate to tell you, but there are too many other pubs that welcome well-constructed releases as "free" content that they know will interest their readers. That content is called "news."

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