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Journalism: Money vs. Merit

April 15, 2013

I am particularly troubled by obfuscation, which I define as the art of attempting to confuse people.  I have always believed that playing it straight sets all of us on a better course.

This came to mind the other day when The New York Times ran a piece, “Sponsors NowPay for Online Articles, Not Just Ads.” 

So, what does that headline exactly mean?  Everyone knows what advertisements are.  Everyone also knows what articles are.  What the Times story is addressing is the marrying of the two:  articles that are ads.  Anything wrong with that?  Not at all.  As long as the articles that are ads are clearly identified as such, and not in print so tiny that the reader would not know whether the article was paid for by a sponsor or objectively written by a journalist who works for the publication.  The problem is that the way these “sponsored articles” are often positioned, it is hard for the reader to decipher the difference.  But below I note some other problems.

Why are advertisers sponsoring articles in online publications these days more than previously?  Because of a decline in audience receptivity to banner ads, largely due to online readers’ orientation toward conversation, stories and softer messages.  Articles, essays and op-eds fit that profile.   The latter have always been the domain of the public relations professional, who communicates client messages editorially, but only if the publication sees value in such messages for its readership.  Now the ad agency has entered the fray via paid content.

In addition to the potential obfuscation by publications that don’t clearly label paid content for what it is, I am most troubled by the prospect of money eventually trumping meritocracy in journalism and making it more difficult for new ideas and investigatory work to reach a wide audience.  While I have no problem with properly identified paid content, I am concerned about the availability of choice locations for the topics that need to be communicated.

Public relations for years has fostered the value of advertorials (today called branded content, paid for by an advertiser), such as a dedicated magazine sporting a client’s message via articles and sewn into publications -- or one-page or partial-page takes.  There are magazines that have always been “pay-for-play” —particularly in the investor area—where every article is sponsored by a client advertiser who must get a point of view published, and this is acknowledged by the publication.  The head of an agency in India told me about the most horrific case I’ve heard of:  in that country, some publications now restrict free journalism among their reporters if the publication can get sponsored money for a piece that it would have ordinarily written on its own with its own point of view.  Thus, reporters now face restrictions in the investigation process.

Thankfully, many publications are still vigilant, and social media and some owned media channels provide alternative, credible ways to publish.  Nevertheless, I hope readers are sensitive to the environment in which information is dispensed and are scrutinizing in their selections.

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