Comment

Hiding in Paid Sight

29 August 2016

Picture this: A media ecosystem so rife with corruption that audiences cannot distinguish truth from bias. Editors of major mastheads are the puppets of large corporations and political parties own almost every news channel. The pillars of journalistic ethics have collapsed.

While this may sound like a bleak dystopian future of journalism, it is in fact the current state of the Indian press, as portrayed in Umesh Aggarwal’s Brokering News. The documentary exposes the extent of corruption within the Indian media landscape, blaming this on the illicit, yet common practice of paying for news by politicians and business moguls. During major elections, demand for news space skyrockets. For the bargain sum of 15 lakh rupees ($30,000 USD), politicians can buy 10 days of general news coverage. If they’re feeling particularly thrifty, a handsome 25 lakh rupees ($50,000 USD) will grant them seven days of exclusive coverage.

The infiltration of political and corporate forces into mainstream media is not isolated to this context. Recently, The Atlantic was castigated for a sponsored piece on the Church of Scientology, in which they unabashedly promoted the controversial institution and then censored the negative comments of disgruntled readers. In Australia, as part of a printing deal between Fairfax and China Daily, news about China in Fairfax’s major mastheads is framed positively, with critics labelling the content as Chinese propaganda. As native advertising overlaps with certain elements of the practice of paid news, many are alarmed about its rising prominence.

Compared to the straightforward nature of traditional advertising, Frederic Filloux, board member of the Global Editors Network, claims native advertising contains editorial content that is produced by professional journalists.

“The message is much more dense and thorough,” he says. “It is to be blended in with the editorial content of websites. Advertising has always aimed to be blended as seamlessly as possible within editorial.”

This is precisely my main concern with native advertising. The fact that it is cohesive with other content on websites makes it difficult for some people to recognise when they are reading paid articles. This ambiguity is disconcerting.

Emily Day, editor of independent craft beer magazine Froth shares my concerns.

“It irks me when you read a piece and see that it’s sponsored,” she says. “I don’t like it when you can’t tell what’s journalism and what’s marketing. I like ads to be very clearly ads, I like to know the author’s motivations.”

Froth has strictly no native advertising, a choice Ms Day stands by.

“It was my revulsion of reading that kind of writing,” she explains. “I wanted to make something people would want to read because they’d know our reviews aren’t paid for or biased.

Indirectly or directly, native advertising is a tool used by companies to promote their brands. Such content is almost always positive. This kind of PR speak bores Day.

“It’s so bland, being positive all the time,” she grimaced. “I’ve made Froth to promote the industry but every now and then I’ll write a review and say, ‘This beer is terrible’.”

“When people drink beer, they’ll have a bad one, they’ll have a good one. When they see that reflected in Froth, they’re more likely to trust us.”

Although she’s talking about beer, this applies to many things.  When I’m flipping through a magazine, alarm bells start ringing inside my head whenever I read a glowing review of a certain product or service. I’ve become almost nostalgic for a time when writers did not double as salespeople. As journalism and advertising become increasingly merged, it is harder for content to remain unbiased.  

According to Filloux, rapidly falling journalist numbers alongside the boom of the corporate communications sphere is a growing concern.

“There is indeed a danger with native advertising in that it’s very easy to be tempted not to sufficiently distinguish it as paid content,” Filloux warns. “It’s much easier to taint native content than it is to taint a simple banner ad. Some publications very deliberately blur the boundaries.”  

Risks and dangers considered, the proliferation of native advertising points to the overwhelming need for it.

“It would be preferable not to use native advertising but it’s so hard as a publisher to say no,” Day says. “I’ve just had a big brewer ask me to write articles about them and I thought, ‘Oh my god, you’ve got so much money but I have to say no’,” she laughs.

While Froth is able to sustain itself without native ads, this isn’t the case for many online publications. “Getting money out of journalism is one of the hardest things,” Day recognises.

It’s true. Traditional online ads no longer sufficiently fund journalism. Not only is the value of these ads plummeting but they are also becoming increasingly ineffective. Average click-through rates are a dismal 0.2 per cent. The use of ad-blockers is also more prevalent. A 2016 report by PageFair stated that there has been a 90 per cent global growth in mobile ad-blocker usage since last year.

Though conventional online advertising is evidently failing, Filloux is confident that native advertising is part of the solution.

“It is a viable means of supporting quality journalism,” he emphasises. “It’s a great way to bring money back to the media ecosystem.”

Filloux isn’t the only one who recognises this. Numerous leading titles, such as The New York Times and the BBC, have already adopted native advertising and native advertising expenditure is expected to rise to $US21 billion by 2018. BuzzFeed’s successful revenue model is entirely based on native advertising and with native advertising already generating 50 per cent of their total revenue, Australia’s Junkee Media plans to move towards a similar model and abandon display ads.  

Native advertising should neither be seen as the coup de grâce of quality journalism, nor as the miraculous solution to the woes of the media industry.

“It’s simply part of the toolbox,” insists Filloux. “It is not a magic bullet.”

But according to Filloux, the way a company uses native advertising is a measure of their ethical principles and of how highly they value their readers’ trust.

“If you are a media organisation with high standards, you will do your best to notify your readers of paid advertising,” reasons Filloux. “If companies are already questionable in terms of ethics, native advertising will just reinforce the legitimate suspicions readers have.”

In this sense, native advertising will simply bring to light the pre-existing habits of media organisations. If they uphold standards of journalistic ethics, they can produce native content that readers find relevant and insightful. As long as we still receive the standards of quality we’ve always expected from the publications we read, and as long as paid articles are clearly sign-posted, native advertising can be ethical.

“It all boils down to the integrity of the journalists and publisher,” Filloux summarises.

“Those who are going to succeed at native advertising will be careful to use it in a very prudent fashion.

“It’s not native advertising itself that’s at stake here, it’s the way in which we use it,” he concludes. “At the end of the day, it’s like everything else. It’s how you are using it that matters.”