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Sponsored content presents opportunities, ethical concerns for newsrooms

Sponsored content presents opportunities, ethical concerns for newsrooms

Margaret Looney | May 22, 2013

With traditional advertising models falling flat, the news industry has to come up with new ways to make money. Is sponsored content the answer to sustainability?

A murky line divides content that is clearly a marketing effort and "sponsored journalism," the practice of advertisers paying journalists to write editorial pieces that fit within the publication’s niche or regular content.

The National Press Club hosted a panel on the controversial form of advertising, featuring advocates from both sides of the spectrum.

So what is sponsored journalism? Panelist Peter Beller, director of content at freelancing platform Ebyline, said the definition is still a work in progress. “It’s not selling a product,” he said. “It’s providing potential customers with information of any kind that they might actually seek out.”

John Hazard, director of community at Contently, a tech company that connects journalists and brands, argued that the news has been sponsored content all along. The business model is just different, while the journalism model and editorial quality remains the same, he said.

“Back in the day, only the media could talk to an audience, and brands and advertisers had to rent time on broadcast channels...if they wanted to capture a fraction of the audience’s attention,” he said. But with the rise of the web, anyone can be a publisher, which changes a brand’s options for reaching an intended audience.

Both Hazard and Beller put a lot of trust in the audience. They note that the generations growing up on the web have a clear idea that what they’re reading comes from many different viewpoints, but Mark Hamrick, former NPC president and the Washington bureau chief of Bankrate, was more skeptical.

Hamrick said the audience isn’t always aware of the distinction between journalism and advertisements. He likened the blurriness of sponsored content to product placements on television and in film.

But Hazard said being straightforward with your audience can clarify that line. Transparency now trumps objectivity from an audience’s perspective, he said. “If the audience understands clearly where a certain bias comes from...they can make their own decision about the quality of information provided and the ethics behind it.”

Panelists said that when it comes to who is writing the content, segregation of editorial and sponsored content teams is a must. Molly McCluskey, a full-time freelance journalist and vice-chair of the Freelance Committee, gave the example of business publication Forbes, which keeps its editorial and sponsored content teams separate and “never shall the two meet.” Whereas at the Atlantic or at Mashable, the same writer may work for either one.

Given the cloudy nature of sponsored content, Hazard suggests newsrooms create editorial guidelines from the start. “If you’re a brand and trying to produce content and avoid debates and murky situations...create some clear ground rules right from the start,” he said.

Contently uses a code of ethics, inspired by the Society of Professional Journalists and Poynter, but emphasizing transparency over complete independence.

When advertisers are paying journalists to write content, what keeps it from becoming marketing content? “[Brands] are trying to own the audience they previously rented from newspapers and broadcasters, and they understand that they can’t jeopardize that audience engagement,” Hazard said. “If they begin marketing products and brands, they lose that trust, and the audience tunes out.”

Technology giant Intel paid a reporter to write about how technology helped to diffuse domestic violence during the Arab Spring. Beller noted that the piece was more serious than much sponsored content, but thinks it shows how brands can produce editorial content while also staying on message.

“You’re right to be hesitant,” Hazard said. “I’m really skeptical, and I don’t know how it’s going to work out. This is in no way a replacement for investigative journalism. Coke is not going to publish articles about the obesity epidemic. But publishing articles that create an interest among the reader in things that they care about - that’s exactly what [sponsored journalism] is when it’s done right. When it’s done wrong, it’s direct, bludgeoning marketing.”

IJNet Editorial Assistant Margaret Looney writes about the latest media trends, reporting tools and journalism resources.

@margylooney

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via west.m.

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