We’ll keep a clear line between news and ads

karen.peterson@thenewstribune.comJune 2, 2013 

In the beginning, there was news. And there was advertising.

Telling the difference was easy.

News had a headline at the top, a journalist’s byline and row after row of verified facts down the columns of a page. The idea was to provide an independent look at a topic editors thought was valuable for readers. Readers trusted that journalists weren’t being influenced about what to write or how to write it.

Advertising was inside a box. It consisted of catchy phrases and flashy type pitching a product or service, maybe even with a price tag. The idea was to prompt a sale. The information in the ads was valuable, but readers knew they were being pitched.

Knowing readers don’t always want to be clobbered over the head with such a direct sell, some advertisers are trying a more subtle approach.

And some news organizations are experimenting, mainly online, with ways to accommodate that new approach while maintaining the credibility of their own brands.

Identified by any number of labels — sponsored content, content marketing, native advertising, brand “journalism” — companies are writing their own stories and working to associate their brands with the stories.

This goes beyond what newspapers have long dubbed “advertorials,” ads that can look like news stories but directly laud an advertiser’s business. (The News Tribune labels those as “Paid advertisements.”) The new sponsored content speaks more generally on a topic the company thinks will appeal to its customers. By running its logo or an ad next to the content, readers begin to associate the advertiser with the appealing topic.

Some companies publish this content themselves.

Intel created an online magazine, iQ, and stocked it with technology stories to draw young people to a site that carries the blue Intel banner down the left-hand side.

Dick’s Sporting Goods has posted a series of videos on YouTube, surely to be shared via social media, that are beautifully produced and tell beautiful stories. One after another, people who are runners emotionally talk about why they run. None of the videos pitch Dick’s running shoes, but runners will see the Dick’s logo next to them. Mission accomplished for Dick’s.

The newest twist has ad-sponsored content appearing on traditional news websites.

The Washington Post in March announced its BrandConnect program that allows advertisers, for a fee, to provide stories that appear on its homepage under a blue banner labeling it “Sponsor generated content.”

CTIA, a wireless communications company, was the Post’s first BrandConnect customer. A CTIA piece published in April, “Farm management goes mobile,” talks about how today’s farmers use wireless technology. It never directly pitches the company, but by the company’s own tagline is “highlighting the benefits of wireless communication.” While informative, the piece never considers the drawbacks, costs or how well wireless works in these rural areas.

A journalist would have been obligated to apply such a critical eye no matter how much CTIA was paying the Post. But the piece wasn’t journalism.

The Post says on its website: “BrandConnect will be clearly labeled as advertising, and The Washington Post newsroom is not involved in the development.”

Both are critical.

Bill Momary, who started Ebyline in 2009 as a tool for connecting freelance writers with news organizations, said companies increasingly seek freelancers to write sponsored content. Companies know they can get quality pieces from writers with journalism training, he said. Freelancers can choose whether to write this kind of content.

Sponsored stories can be informative and entertaining, Momary said, but they aren’t what he calls “Big J journalism.”

While some consultants are pushing advertisers to make their sponsored content blend in as much as possible on news sites, Momary urges news organizations to clearly label sponsored content or risk devaluing their own brand.

“You can’t confuse a consumer on that, or you lose their trust,” he said.

The TNT hasn’t published sponsored content, but we would clearly label it if we did.

News organizations — including the TNT — could not do business without their valued advertisers. Certainly our readers benefit from both news and advertising content. But we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we blurred the lines.

Journalists’ independence — from government officials, advertisers or anyone else — differentiates us from a million other information providers. We can share our space with advertisers, but we must make it clear to readers which is which.

The real test is for media consumers as they shop the universe of information. It’s important to understand who is providing the content and the motivations behind it.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434 karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com

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