Trends in Newsrooms #9: ‘Native’ advertising – the challenge to journalistic integrity

“There used to be a very clear wall between editorial and advertising and this wall has crumbled down, and it might have crumbled permanently,” Ebele Wybenga, a journalist and author based in The Netherlands, warned a year ago.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | August 20, 2014

How should news publishers handle native advertising? In this ninth installment from our Trends in Newsrooms report, which is available free to WAN-IFRA and WEF members, we look at how some top publishers are approaching this controversial form of revenue.

Traditionally, journalists and editors fought hard to maintain what they called “the wall between church and state” – a metaphor for the newsroom’s effective day-to-day division between advertising and editorial. It has always been seen as essential to a masthead’s integrity that advertisers have no influence over stories.

The past year, however, has seen several world famous news providers announce that they were softening their policies on this. In the past six months, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have both started offering what is being described as “native advertising” – the new buzzword for the sponsored content previously called “advertorials” or “branded content.”

Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor for The New York Times, described this potentially contentious form of advertising this way during a presentation at the International Journalism Festival in May 2014 in Perugia, Italy: “Native advertising is short-hand for advertising that looks like editorial content. Is this intended to fool the reader? Well, no, you could never get anyone to say that, but it is intended to draw readers into the advertising in part because it does look like editorial content.”

Of course, native advertising isn’t exactly new to publishing. In the past, this kind of paid-for content frequently appeared in print publications as “advertorials” or even large-scale, multi-page “special advertising sections” that often seemed to be, for example, in-depth reports about a given country and its unique business opportunities.

Whenever the concept is brought up by newspaper publishers, it  puts their journalists and editors on high alert. While native advertising contains clear rewards for the business side, it also carries clear risks to editorial integrity and the brand at large. The main benefit to publishers, of course, is money – potentially loads of it.

Sullivan wrote in an article about The New York Times’ foray into this form of advertising late last year, “The Times has high hopes for this effort, Mr. [Mark] Thompson [the paper’s CEO] said he is hoping for ‘eight figures’ – tens of millions of dollars – in advertising revenue. That won’t be immediate, he said, but it’s not in the distant future, either.”

While the money might be much needed these days, the potential downsides to using native advertising can be many, first and foremost of which is the risk to editorial integrity, and this needs to be addressed by publishers right from the start. For example, on the day The New York Times announced that it was branching into native advertising, Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. sent an email to the newspaper’s staff saying, “We will ensure that there is never a doubt in anyone’s mind about what is Times journalism and what is advertising.”

Today, some six months into The Times’ use of native advertising, Sullivan told those in Perugia, “The Times has actually done it very well, in that it is labelling the native advertising very carefully and so you’ll see the words ‘Paid Post.’ ” [Editors note: In the image above, a screenshot from NYT, “Dell” is listed in the blue bar, and just above it are the words “Paid for and posted by Dell”] Sullivan added that in her role as public editor for the paper, her story from December “wasn’t meant so much as criticism as it was ‘Here’s something to watch.’ ”

A slippery slope

While Sullivan has been pleased with the way things have worked out with native advertising so far at The New York Times, she was right in noting there is still healthy concern about the use of native advertising at papers throughout the world.

For instance, during last year’s World Editors Forum in BangkokSiddarth Varadarajan, the former Editor of The Hindu, gave an example of a print advertorial in The Hindu that the advertiser then clipped and displayed on its Facebook page as if it were an endorsement from the paper itself.

He added that this kind of content has also become a slippery slope towards another evil: paid news. Some of the largest media houses in India have been caught up in this, he added, mentioning one scandal where political candidates were paying for coverage.

“We have take a clear stand against paid news of any form,” he said, adding that professional bodies and associations must do this. Another important point is that all stakeholders in the paper need to understand that any material that originates from an advertiser is promotional material and not journalism. If sponsored content is used, then disclaimers need to be prominently displayed, he said.

“The bottom line is that it’s essential for the future of news that the readers’ interests are protected,” Varadarajan concluded. “People are willing to spend money for news – for objective information – but if this is seen as compromised, it will be the kiss of death for news business.”

While discussions on this issue are certain to last for the foreseeable future, it seems that at least for now, clear sign-posting and transparency are a newsroom’s best options when it comes to dealing with native advertising.

Additional research by Emma Goodman.

Note: You can read this article in full in the report Trends in Newsrooms 2014. The report, edited by Julie Posetti, is available here (free to WEF and WAN-IFRA members). In part 1 of this Trends in Newsrooms blog series, we provided an overview of the top 10 newsrooms trends of 2014, in part 2, we profiled Trend 1: the urgent need to shield journalism in the Age of Surveillance. In part 3 we addressed Trend 2: the rebooting of mobile strategy. The fourth installment of the blog series tackles Trend 3: Back to basics with social media verification. More recent posts include Trend 4: Analytics – when data drives the newsroom; Trend 5: Newspapers begin to challenge broadcasters in online video storytelling; Trend 6: The rise (and fall) of women editors; Trend 7: The growing importance of global collaborative investigative journalism; and Trend 8: The impact of digital mega-stories.

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