Jill Abramson Isn’t a Fan of Native Advertising

Worries about 'leaving confusion in readers' minds'

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New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson isn't a fan of native advertising. At yesterday’s Wired Business Conference, which attracted some of the biggest names in tech and media, Abramson essentially wrote it off as confusing for the consumer.

In a Q&A with Wired editor in chief Scott Dadich, Abramson expressed reservations about sponsored content. “What I worry about is…leaving confusion in readers' minds about where the content comes from, and purposefully making advertising look like a news story,” she said. “I think that some of what is being done with native advertising does confuse a little too much.”

BuzzFeed CEO and founder Jonah Peretti and a cheerleader for the medium, for his part, told Wired editor Bill Wasick that one of the biggest mistakes content creators make is churning out native ads that are “second rate news articles” rather than entertaining, sharable stories. “You have to do a test where you say, ‘If I we a consumer would I click on this or share this?’”

Perhaps the best-known example of a failed native ad—The Atlantic’s much-maligned Scientology post—didn’t pass that test, said Peretti. But the backlash, he said, was not simply because the ad was about Scientology; it was also due to the ad’s poor execution. So what would be a “clickable” Scientology ad? Peretti suggested a video of Tom Cruise getting his e-meter reading. (Then again, he added, “If what you're doing is corrupt and evil and shrouded in secrecy, it's much harder to do authentic advertising.”)

Abramson was also much more conservative when it came to the role of reporting via social media. While she said that she was most concerned with Times being competitive and getting the story as quickly as possible, she also made sure that nothing would be reported before it had been absolutely confirmed. In the case of the Boston Marathon story, Abramson said, “what was first and foremost in my mind was that our standard was understood by everyone,” adding that she had gone into the newsroom at 1:15 A.M. on the night of the manhunt because she was worried that reporters might pick up a story from an authoritative outlet that “looked” right but wasn’t. “It’s really important to lower the noise,” she said.

Peretti and Abramson also shared what they learned from recent Boston coverage. At BuzzFeed, according to Peretti, the Boston bombing proved the site’s growth as a destination for breaking news: When the news first broke, traffic to the BuzzFeed homepage began spiking even before any stories had been posted, he said. Meanwhile, Abramson saw the Times’ bombing coverage as a marker of its digital maturity when asked by Dadich to compare it with the newspaper’s 9/11 coverage. “Back then,” she said, “the only thing we were worried about was the next day’s paper.” Now, “it seems like a completely different news operation.”

The conference’s last speaker, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, said pushing media content—especially video—is important for Yahoo’s growth. The company’s approach, she said, is a tiered one: It will continue to create a small tier of original content (like its web series “Burning Love,” which was picked by E!), curate a larger tier content from outside sources, and the majority of content will be user-generated videos. Mayer described herself as a newbie to the world of content creation. While the tech side of her new position came naturally, given her Google roots, “the media aspect is new and different for me,” she said.

Mayer also addressed her decision to end the work-from-home option for Yahoo employees, which has been the source of much media attention. “I didn't mean for it to become an industry narrative, but it’s just not right for us right now,” she said. “People are more collaborative and inventive when they work together.” (Such was the case with Yahoo’s new photo-enabled weather app: It only came together because one of the Flickr developers ran into someone from the weather group in the office.)

When asked what her ultimate goal for Yahoo was, Mayer was bold in her prediction: “Being on every smartphone, tablet and PC, every day for every Internet user,” she said. “It’s not that far off…But we need to grow.”

@adweekemma emma.bazilian@adweek.com Emma Bazilian is Adweek's features editor.