Media Needs to Establish Clear Boundaries Between Editorial and Sponsored Content

The lines have blurred, leading to reader frustration

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“You are very fake news.”

When I heard about Newseum’s controversial T-shirts—now withdrawn and hopefully recycled—I felt an odd shiver of guilt. I had to step back and ask myself why. And I came to the alarming conclusion that, despite being a member of Britain’s National Union of Journalists for around 30 years, with a press card tucked neatly into my wallet, I may have become a fake journalist.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a journalist as “a writer or editor for a news medium” or “a writer who aims at a mass audience.” The second definition may give me some wiggle room, but it’s been a long time since I made my living purely writing articles for the news media.

Media organizations have gone through a similar transformation. Just as the borders between journalism and PR have blurred, so have the borders between editorial and advertising. The frightening part is that everyone seems to have stopped caring.

Long ago, when I worked full time for a magazine, the relationship between journalists and ad sales people was prickly. Now it seems a whole lot cozier.

If more people pay for genuine editorial, perhaps the press will feel less obliged to accept heavily disguised advertorial.

I first noticed this trend almost a decade ago when I became aware of a magazine called Monocle, an eccentric but alluring blend of current affairs, lifestyle and trends. It also turned the advertorial into an art form: beautiful spreads, barely distinguishable from journalism and identified by the brand name followed by a cryptic “x Monocle.”

This felt acceptable because Monocle was a distant cousin to the glossy fashion magazines, and even the most casual observer of the fashion industry knew that the glossies were basically catalogs.

With the coming of the digital era, the line blurred to the point of invisibility: first bloggers, and then influencers, regularly accepted gifts from brands, reviewed them or posed for pictures featuring them and often forgot to mention that their post was essentially an ad. Even the audience grew numb to the difference.

In the battle to scape a new business model from the wreckage wrought by the internet, legacy media owners have gone the same way, offering native advertising and branded content to clients who want it to look as close as possible to editorial.

Throughout my journalistic career, I’ve known that advertising paid my wages. If the ads now look a lot more like articles, is that such a big deal?

Well, actually, yes. Because journalism has lost the high ground. There was a time when it had a certain dignity. Sure, it was less populated with dogged seekers after truth than the movies would have us believe, but editors could still talk loftily about ideals with less risk of being laughed out of the room.

I know there are journalists to be paid, lights to be kept on and clients with an addiction to content. According to eMarketer, native ads will account for nearly 60 percent, or over $32 billion, of display spending in the U.S. this year.

It’s time for the press to figure out how to regain some of its dignity. For a start, rules concerning labeling, disclosure and transparency need to be more strictly adhered to. Last year, Forbes reported that nearly 40 percent of publishers ignore the FTC’s rules on labeling sponsored content, based on a survey by MediaRadar.

Editorial teams must resist the pressure to agree to advertiser partnerships that risk undermining their integrity. In any meeting with ad sales or content staff, they should put the reader before the advertiser. Once the deal is done, will it be abundantly clear that this is sponsored content? Furthermore, does the content provide a worthwhile service to the reader? And does it enhance the image of the platform as a whole?

There is a lot at stake. Short-term gains come at the risk of undermining hard-earned reputations. It may be time to rebuild the big beautiful wall between church and state.

Readers can play a role, because a big part of the answer is the paywall. I pay for The New York Times. I pay for the London Times. I pay for everything I can because I hope my money will keep journalists honest and advertisers in their place. If more people pay for genuine editorial, perhaps the press will feel less obliged to accept heavily disguised advertorial.

This is not just a pipe dream: Having set up its paywall in 2011, The New York Times now has 2.2 million paying subscribers and added $340 million worth of new subscriptions last year.

Ironically, I believe most advertisers, like most readers, prefer upright, idealistic and credible media brands. Those brands have something that advertisers crave, which is prestige. By helping the press regain the high ground, everyone wins.

All right, I’ll just say it: Let’s make the news media great again.

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This story first appeared in the November 5, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.