Can Journalism As A Civic Good And Native Advertising Live Side-by-Side?

Do you recognize a so-called native ad when you see one? It’s not as easy it sounds. Back in the day we used to plaster an ADVERTORIAL sign on top of any editorial that was supplied by a marketer. But marketers today want their ads, excuse me, their content, to blend in and fit seamlessly with the rest of the media product.

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Buzzfeed, “the leading social news organization,” is advancing the native advertising ball as aggressively as possible. Which has some traditionalist’s panties in a wad. Last night in New York, as part of a Social Media Week panel, a debate on editorial ethics erupted between journalist/blogger Andrew Sullivan and BuzzFeed’s Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith.

Today, Sullivan reflects:

I am accusing those (media) institutions of pushing as far up to the line between advertorial and editorial as can be even remotely ethically justified. I am accusing them of now hiring writers for two different purposes: writing journalism and writing ad copy. Before things got this desperate/opportunistic, the idea of a magazine hiring writers to craft their clients’ ads rather than, you know, do journalism, would have been unimaginable. A magazine was not an ad agency. But the Buzzfeed/Atlantic model is to be both a journalism site and an ad agency. You can see the reason for the excitement. We can now write purely for corporate clients and that will pay for us to do the rest. And so a CEO at Chevron gets a by-line at the magazine that once gave us Twain and Thoreau.

Again, the need for greater media literacy states its case. Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum argues, “that people who don’t inhale news simply don’t notice bylines. They’re practically invisible.” Too true. Yet, I wonder if the distinction between media company-generated content and marketer-generated content is truly significant outside of the media/marcom bubble. Journalists sometimes forget that they too work for media companies, with strong business agendas, like making payroll. The concept that journalists write purely unadulterated and unbiased copy, while copywriters write crap is so tired at this point. Copy is copy, and it is meant to sell — an idea or a product. May the best writer win.

Adweek’s Charlie Warzel is taking the judicious approach. He believes “for native advertising to succeed, its practitioners need to be mindful that it’s not yet universally accepted, and traditionalists need to unmoor themselves from the idea that native is a corrosive practice that undermines great journalism and see that it could even be its savior.”

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About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.