Journalism hasn’t figured out a new business model that will sustain news organizations since the Web disrupted the traditional model. The relationship between journalism and advertising remains prevalent, but in the desperation to stay in business, many media organizations have compromised their ethical standards in the name of innovation and searching for a new ways of doing things.
The separation between church and state, or the wall between the editorial and business sides of news organizations, has been diminished, or compromised at the very least. Although to those in favor of the old journalism business model this may seem horrifying, there are people working to find a way to sustain journalism by creating content for advertisers more directly. And this may be a good thing, so long as business ethics aren’t lost along the way.
An article by Ira Basen for the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, discussed the evolution of the relationship between advertisers and newspapers. In their early history, newspapers functioned as a mouthpiece for political or business organizations. This changed when newspapers realized they could make more money through selling ads, according to Basen.
The transition happened quickly so that by 1900, 55 percent of total newspaper revenue came from advertising, Basen wrote.
“And so publishers and editors had to learn how to deal with a new challenge; how to keep advertisers happy while still maintaining a degree of editorial independence,” Basen wrote.
This is essentially the same challenges news organizations face today. Newspapers in 1900 developed standards for independence and reporting the truth to their readers and funding it with advertising. News organizations are still trying to maintain their independence while looking for possible revenue sources.
Native advertising and advertorials have been part of the options companies could choose for their ads, though this became increasingly unpopular with journalists as ethical standards were developed. This type of advertising is still around, in the form of sponsored or custom content, but as journalism revenue has declined, tolerance for these ads seems to have gone up. The ethical compromise needs to be addressed by news organizations so that they can continue with their primary mission to share news with the public.
Shannan Adler reports in an article for the Huffington Post that “Business Insider recently reported that spending on native ads is expected to reach a staggering $7.9 billion this year and grow to $21 billion in 2018.” Native advertising is part of the current business of journalism, but it may not be working the way news organizations hope.
“As newspapers are getting more desperate for revenue, advertisers are getting more demanding…They want something different, something that will help them break through the advertising clutter. Together they are moving into uncharted territory,” Basen wrote.
This new territory is taking shape as customized content for brands. Kirk Cheyfitz, co-chief executive officer and chief storyteller of Story Worldwide, asserts that journalists’ best asset is the skill of storytelling. When advertising becomes about telling a story and providing valuable information instead of selling a product, it can come closer to what journalists are used to doing. The hard-line between advertising and journalism fades. This can be a good thing.
According to Cheyfitz, creating stories for a brand is the solution:
“Brand storytelling with rich content is powerful because audiences — the people formerly known merely as ‘consumers’ — pay attention to valuable content and reward brand-authors by sharing such content with friends and strangers on social platforms. This social sharing increases impact (by two to four times, studies show) and reach (up to nine times, mathematical models show), reducing media spend and boosting efficiency (by as much as 100 times).”
And if these stories can also be works of good journalism, their potential impact is even greater if they are shared this way. Audiences are looking for quality content and information, even if this comes from a brand.
Trained journalists could work on the business side of a news organization to work with brands to tell stories and create content, because they have the ability to recognize and tell a good story. This relationship could then fund the traditional journalism done on the editorial side. The separation between business and editorial is reestablished, and the new line that may seem blurred is if both sides are actually producing quality journalism. Newspapers are brands trying to sell their own product: news stories.
Part of the problem with native advertising is that it often appears like news content on a publications website or platform. If the platform was to change, it could alleviate some of the issue. “Brand-told stories work harder for a brand when they appear on neutral platforms (YouTube, for example) or sites owned by the advertiser,” Cheyfitz wrote. So it is even in the interest of the brand for the content to not just be published by a news organization. The news organization can deal with the ethical concerns by not publishing the ads themselves.
These new ventures with content marketing are not specifically addressed by newsroom ethics codes, but if this relationship is going to continue then these codes will need to be revised. The keys principles that news organizations should be mindful of are transparency, editorial independence and integrity.
It is necessary for each news organization that wants to build these advertising services to put principles in place that will allow for the traditional journalism to continue.
Transparency: Readers have a right to know which companies the news organization is working with. Perhaps they could be listed in a separate section on the news organization’s website. Be honest with your readers about the work that is being done and who is doing it. One of the main issues with native advertising is the deception that is usually involved, or that the sponsored content disclosure if so minimized that most people will miss it. Don’t try and disguise advertising as regular content. Doing this will only annoy readers and hurt advertisers.
Editorial independence: Advertising content should not influence news coverage. If an ad doesn’t fit with the mission of the organization, then the news organization should not be associated with it. Or if there is some conflict with advertising content once it has been published, make sure that it can be taken down or altered, just like a news story. Seriously consider using neutral platforms. Let the content fund the journalism, but allow the two to be separate from the main mission of the news organization.
Integrity: Remember the journalistic purpose of the work that is being done. Producing custom content should not be the equivalent to “selling your soul.” Be honest with the information in the content that is created. Don’t be deceptive about the brand or products.
Dorian Benkoil offered some suggestions for how to avoid problems with sponsored content in an article on MediaShift.org.
Recognize that newspapers, online publications and broadcast stations are brands themselves. They have cultivated a reputation for the type of journalism and work they produce to gain the confidence of their audience. They then use this platform to the benefit of advertisers. Examine the potential of this type of work. The definition of journalism is changing, and so is advertising. Custom content can produce material that informs the audience, in the same way that great journalism can, and even been journalism itself. The difference is in where the funding is coming from. Maybe newspapers need to rethink how they go about their product as whole, and their process of producing journalism and funding it with advertising.
Several major news organizations already have divisions in place to produce custom content. For example, The New York Times has T Brand Studio; The Toronto Star has Star Content Studios, and there are numerous private companies providing this service, staffed by journalists. The ethics needs to evolve with the advertising.
As a journalism student, I feel that I am more interested in being a good storyteller than covering hard news at a daily newspaper. For me, the idea of telling interesting stories for a brand seems like a possible path. Making ethical decisions according to Aristotle’s Golden Mean considers each individual circumstance, as well as previous experiences, in deciding how to act. I think it is important to not just write off new ways of looking at advertising simply because advertising and journalism are not supposed to go together. The Golden Mean allows for the flexibility that I think is necessary for news organizations to have. News organizations need to have their principles and ethics in place, but also should evaluate each situation and remember that they are trying to tell a story to their audience.