The relationship between advertising and journalism was borne of necessity, one of symbiotic nature where both parties neither enjoyed the other’s company much, but understood their time together was mutually beneficial. The Founding Fathers and the First Amendment glorified the nature of the press and its place in a democratic society, but placed little underpinnings for financing such a civic venture. A newspaper was a place to disseminate the world and its comings to a reading mass, but as they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch; so alongside the news with a cynical side eye sat the advertisement to supplant the work of the printing press. Up until the past decade, the divide was tenuous, but clear. There was a separation of church and state in the newsroom; the reporters and editors understood the necessity of the ad as a means to their democratic end, and the ad man respected, or at the very least, tolerated, the minimal necessities of maintaining editorial independence. It was not ideal, but it worked.
But, in an ironic fashion, the democratizing tide of the Internet has now worked to tear down the wall brick by brick until today, both the ad man and the journalist are staring face to face. The ad man has stepped over the rubble and peaked his head into the newsroom. He like what he sees. He has picked up a pencil, sat next the journalist, witnessed his work, and scribbled down a cheap facsimile that promotes his aim in a fashion mirroring the reporters. Such is the nature of native advertising, the latest stride to monetize a service that is increasingly suffering at the bottom line. This march into enemy territory and the cuddling that follows is where the journalism world now stands, and as the future progresses, will only continue to go. As the media world seeks further measures to monetize their product, I predict the line between journalism and advertising will increasingly blur and eradicate in the years to come, an action that will cause both a critical blow to editorial independence and an impending rift between the media and public’s exchanged trust.
Before I delve into the modern infiltration of advertising into the newsroom, it is prudent to first understand the conditions that led to the rise of native advertising and similar strategies. Additionally, for the sake of simplicity as well as reliability to the topic at hand, my analysis of journalism will be centered on the print product (newspapers, magazines, etc.) versus broadcast journalism (CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, etc.) Print media was and is still the most often the source of original news (broadcast news often gleans their stories from print media), and therefore has the most at stake in terms of editorial independence. In the first decade of the 21st century, newspaper advertising went from a boom in the 1990’s to a quick bust by the 2010s. In 2000, advertising revenue for U.S. newspapers sat at $63.5 billion. By 2012, it was $19 billion. (Brock 138). The Great Recession proved for unfortunate timing and no doubt was a contributor, but it was neither the sole nor leading source for the precipitous revenue decline. Reader’s media consumption habits quickly transitioned from print to online in the 2000’s, and print circulation shrunk accordingly. Between 2005 and 2013, weekday print circulation at the top 25 U.S. papers fell nearly 42 percent (Brock 153). David Brock in his book “Out of Print” articulates that by the time the industry realized their failing business model, the damage was done: “So much investment, habit and vested interest was locked into the advertising business model that those operating it were reluctant to acknowledge that much was wrong until the evidence was inescapable.” This combination of shrinking subscribers and falling advertising revenue left the print media world in a dangerous situation of figuring out how to fund their news ventures. The industry was and, still is to some degree, desperately looking for a sustainable business model to replace one that had sustained the industry for much of the last century. It is in that search where specialized forms of advertising have grown to infiltrate the newsroom, native advertising being the main one.
Native advertising is a strategy that goes by many names – branded content, sponsored content, etc. – but its premise is always more or less the same: presenting an advertisement in similar form and function to the platform its distributed on. The ad is meant to be akin to the content, appear “native” to its surrounding, a camouflage, of sorts. The basic premise isn’t entirely a new concept. During the print age, it did exist in some shape or form through the advertorial – a print ad that was written in similar format and style to the newspaper or magazine article. These ads, too, were often criticized for appearing in similar format to the news (Advertorial 1), not only by the public, but regulators and self-regulators who argued the advertorial was “deceptively posing as editorial content” (Seligman 1). But what separates the advertorial of old and the native advertising of today is the level of finesse and camouflage of the latter. Native advertising is less clunky, less awkward, and less obvious. Its nature is integrated much more seamlessly and unique to the platform it runs on; in an attempt to define the somewhat broad term, the Harvard Business Review deemed native advertising’s distinct classifications: “An ad format that must be created specifically for one media channel in terms of the technical format and the content (both must be native to the channel on which they appear and unable to be used in another context)” (Joel 1).
By now, the modern consumer would have experience with native advertising even if they didn’t recognize it by name. Google for instance, has been a longtime user of the ad strategy, with Google searches listing sponsored links at the top in the same list as the rest of the searches. The only distinction is a tiny yellow box in the corner that says “Ad.” Twitter and Facebook have in-feed promoted content. But the most obvious success story on applying native advertising to media specifically is BuzzFeed. The 9-year old Internet news company is an amalgamation of whimsical listicles and cat videos among serious editorial content, and generates nearly all of its revenue through native ads (Sebastian 1). It also seems to be working tremendously — BuzzFeed brought in more than $100 million in revenue in 2014 (Sebastian 1). Examples of BuzzFeed sponsored content include “15 Grown-Up Twists On Your Favorite Childhood Meals” promoted by Quaker, and “10 Reasons Why Being Broke Isn’t The Worst Thing In The World” by Taco Bell. The subtlety is obvious – the reader is not being hit over the head on “10 Reasons You Need a Crunch Wrap Supreme Right Now,” but rather the ad creates an emotion and experience that the consumer then could connect with the product in an appealing way. President of digital at media agency MEC told Advertising Age that the BuzzFeed has “figured out how to make it funny, make it fast and make it heavily image driven” (Sebastian 1).
Looking at the success of BuzzFeed then, its evident why other media agencies would seek to follow and emulate such a business model. It is a solution to a monetize news in a consumer landscape that now believes news should be free. Media companies that are employing the strategy, such as the New York Times and Time Inc., have sung its praises and justified its merits, stressing it won’t erode editorial independence. Meredith Levien, the executive vice president of advertising at The New York Times argued at the 2014 IAB Annual Leadership Meeting that native advertising is not meant to be a deceptive act, but rather a mutually beneficial relationship between the advertiser and the media company.
Good native advertising respects the independence and sanctity of journalism and at the same time puts the onus on the reader to decide, do I want to engage with the marketer’s content or not? Good native advertising it not meant to be trickery; it’s meant to be publishers sharing their storytelling tools with marketing.
Levien’s statement, however, is a form of trickery in itself. Native advertising is meant for the reader to think they’re reading a BuzzFeed article or a New York Times article – that is the entire point. As John Olivier satirically described Levien’s words in his Show Last Week Tonight last August– “it’s not bull sh—t, it’s just repurposed bovine waste.” The issue with justifying native advertising is that it is deceptive at its core, a deception that is entirely contrary to the merits of journalism. And the deception seems to be working. A study by content marketing platform Contently in July showed that the majority of consumers identify native advertising as articles, not as advertisements (Lazauskas 1). People are spending time on them too. At the Atlantic, readers are spending four to five minutes on native ads (Moses 1). Four to five minutes, on an ad. Levien has boasted that New York Times readers are spending roughly the same amount of time on their “paid posts” as news stories (Tadena 1). The media leadership is defending native ads on the basis of their labeling and distinction from the editorial. Executive editor Dean Banquet said in an interview with Digiday: “[Our native advertising] is clearly labeled; to be frank, I think it’s high quality.” (Moses 1). High quality, yes. But honest? No.
As native advertising continues to drive profitability for media companies, the desire for advertising of this nature will likely increase. Jonah Peretti, CEO of BuzzFeed, said in an interview with The Drum that native advertising is the future because it blends seamlessly with a population attached to their mobile devices, one that is not willing to take the time to separate themselves for an ad: “When I think of native advertising, you need to make content and advertising fit the way people consume media. You’re going to see more and more branded content as people become aware that you can’t interrupt people. You have to make them engaging” (The Drum). The trajectory of people’s media consumption habits provide the perfect petri dish for native advertising to grow: the consumer doesn’t want to take the time on what they think is an ad. But this rise is dangerous. As this sort of camouflaged advertising continues to seep into the editorial, advertisers will hold a greater reign of influence in the newsroom.
This augmented influence is a severe blow to the sanctity of the newsroom. As journalist and blog entrepreneur Andrew Sullivan put it to Digiday, it is effectively the surrender of journalists: “Advertising snuck into the editorial pages in a way that advertising has always wanted to do. It used to be an axiom that the job of journalists was to be resistant to that and sustain the clear distinction between advertising and journalism. One side has effectively surrendered” (Braiker 1). The journalist’s surrender is manifested by the bowing down to advertisers who feel a platform’s editorial content is negative to the advertiser. It’s already happening now among native advertising. For example, BuzzFeed pulled down an article that was critical of Dove soap’s advertising campaign. Dove is an advertiser on BuzzFeed. When Gawker reported on this information, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith stressed this was an editorial decision based on the article’s content, not because of advertising pressures. That is a weak misdirection, and it wasn’t the first time either. A BuzzFeed writer said Smith made him remove an article that was critical of Axe Body Spray, the same advertiser as Dove (Both Dove and Axe are owned by Unilever). This is indicative of two possible future trends: either in the future editorials are more commonly taken down because of advertising pressures, or (and what I believe more likely), the situation never gets that far. Instead, and what is even more worrisome than posts being taken down, is stories being suppressed in the future before reaching publication in fear of offending the advertiser.
In a one-two punch, after the advertiser holds an effective noose around the newsroom, the effect will lend to a continuing erosion of trust between the media and the public. The Contently study showed that “…62 percent of respondents think a news site loses credibility when it publishes native ads and 48 percent have felt deceived upon realizing a piece of content was sponsored by a brand.” (Lasauskas 1). There is a faulty assumption in native advertising that the reader is not focused enough to understand they are seeing an ad; In fact, in reference to the above Peretti quote, the goal is for the reader not to be interrupted at all. But as ad man Tom McElligott put it, “I’d much rather overestimate the intelligence of the consumer than underestimate it.” As native advertising proliferates and the consumer slowly becomes accustomed to weeding through the muck, they too will question the sanctity of the newsroom when they see the coziness of the advertisements with content. During a panel discussion on native advertising, Partner and Chief Creative at Knock Twice, Kyle Monson, said “it doesn’t do anyone any favors if the media partner’s [advertising] is working to lose credibility among their audience.” Unfortunately, though good for the bottom line now, it seems that in the future this increasing relationship will prove detrimental toward media’s credibility.
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The Drum. “Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti on the future of the media company’s advertising offer.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 10 Jul. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.