Environment. The stewards of atmosphere understand that they must protect their ecosystems from contamination.
This is not a novel publishing concept. For the whole history of media prior to the digital age, magazines, newspaper and TV networks turned down certain advertisers -- indeed, entire categories of advertisers -- so they could present a pristine environment to the audience and reputable majority of the marketplace.
Those were the days. Financial extremis has led to gathering environmental calamity. In this space I have previously documented the sad surrender of Smithsonian to the E-Z riches of Slea-Z direct-response ads. Then there was the repulsive Scientology advertorial run by theatlantic.com, which tarnished its reputation by letting spiritual racketeers run a brochure disguised as editorial content. Not to mention the phenomenal sponsored content on the Web site of CBS 2 in Los Angeles: a travel piece from a local car dealership suggesting a destination called Murphy Ranch. “Make sure to arrive in your 2013 C250 Coupe,” the native ad pluggingly suggested. Oh -- the bonus was that Murphy Ranch was the command center for American Nazis before WWII.
Nice contextualization, Mercedes-Benz of Encino! Nice whoring yourselves, CBS 2!
The life-or-death search for revenue amid the plummeting CPMs of the digital era have tempted publishers into all sorts of new compromising positions. Previous columns in this series have focused on recommendation engines, which offer links on a pay-per-click basis to other Web “content.” Trouble is, many of those links bait you in the direction of skeezy Web sites.
For instance, consider the page I linked to above (“tarnished its reputation”), a BloombergBusinessweek story about the Scientology debacle. The story, headlined “The Atlantic, the Church of Scientology, and the Perils of Native Advertising” sits on the Web page hard by links from the recommendation-engine outfit Taboola directing readers toward a variety of highly commercial and frequently dubious “content.” The assortment varies with each page load, but for example:
Men Only: Forget About Sit-Ups, Crunches, and Impossible Diets (Hot Topix)
Economist: "Obama Won't Finish Term Without Bottom Dropping Out" (Money Morning)
Blueberries: Top 5 Shocking Health Benefits (Health Guru)
The perils of native advertising, indeed.
The good news is that not all recommended links are so sketchy. The recommendation vendor called Outbrain is relatively scrupulous about where its tempting headlines lead. Outbrain's links typically appear under the ambiguous (i.e., misleading) banner “From around the Web,” but it will not do business with brands trying to suck readers into direct-response pitches.
“I’m not saying we are out there winning Pulitzer prizes, but you won't find the Five Ways to Cure Cancer on Outbrain's networks,” says Lisa LaCour, VP of marketing. “The spammy links that go to the Dr. Oz page that tells you how you can lose 10 pounds in five days -- that stuff doesn't exist on the Outbrain network. We're not about tricking people to clicking on an ad."
“It's getting really dirty out there,” LaCour says. “As CPMs go down, it will get worse.”
Mind you, a publisher need not deploy dubious sponsored content to pollute the editorial environment. Consider the Philadelphia Daily News. This is a city so financially bereft that its schools, already under state control, are at risk of not opening Sept. 9 for the city's 136,000 pupils. On Friday, with $50 million in emergency funding hanging in the balance, the above-the-fold graphics promoted the Eagles' pre-season victory, the new movie, Lee Daniels’ "The Butler," and naturally, “Who is your favorite sexy single?”
That feature was given the benefit of four -- count ‘em -- four links on the home page, including three photos of smokin' hot babes, taking up about 20% of the page's real estate. So if you are willing to pander to the lowest common gonadometer, relegating actual news to below the fold, you needn’t corrupt your editorial with clandestine ad messages. At the Daily News, the editorial matter is itself a corruption, an abdication and utter embarrassment. And it is not alone.
But now let’s consider another metro daily from a city not unlike Philadelphia. The Houston Chronicle’s chron.com site is a hodgepodge of news, puffy features, listicles, and link modules, some of which send you to bona fide Chronicle editorial matter, some to third-party junk, some to third-party material of relative quality and some to the output of the “Chronicle Web Staff.” Now that may sound like a group of Web-dedicated reporters and editors, but no reputable newsroom produces native crap like this:
You can buy this elegant home that's minutes from the Galleria and downtown Houston. The home would be heaven to a foodie. See what it has packed inside.
What are readers to think of naked advertorial not disclosed as advertorial? What are readers to think about the carnival midway that is the home page? The very environment signals everything they need to know: don't trust anything they see there. This creates a calamity within a calamity. The collapse of the classified and display markets has devastated publishers' businesses. But the sponsored-content solution is claiming those publishers’ very souls.
In every way, opening your publication up to third parties can leave you extremely vulnerable. So at long last, permit me to end this series with an eloquent, terrifying, true-to-life metaphor.
I mentioned Outbrain, the white-hat recommendation engine that takes such care to safeguard its customers’ editorial environment. That devotion to content integrity has helped it win such elite clientele as the Washington Post, CNN and Time.
Last week, using the Outbrain module as a point of entry, the Syrian Electronic Army hacked the Washington Post, CNN and Time.