Skimping on Fees and Avoiding Journalists: Are Publishers Doing Native on the Cheap?

Could be moving toward an advertorial model

From publishers to creative agencies to writer networks, many seem to be making money from native advertising. But one group that doesn’t always share equally in the booty is journalists.

While some are paying standard freelance rates or more to those who create native ads, some bad apples are skimping on fees or avoiding hiring journalists altogether.

One brand marketer told of an established news organization promising native content produced by its top journalists but that ultimately used marketing freelancers. “They represented themselves as giving access to their editorial staff,” the exec said. “Then they delivered articles written by copywriters instead of journalists.”

Writer networks point to a wide range in what brands and publishers are looking to pay. “We’ve seen it a few times where an advertiser is coming to a publisher and saying, ‘We’ll pay $1,000 a piece,’ and the publisher will turn around and pay the freelancer $100,” said Shane Snow, co-founder of Contently. “The publisher has some built-in costs, but we see some very large spreads in some cases.”

“It’s all over the place because it is still a fairly nascent category,” said Shafqat Islam, co-founder and CEO of NewsCred. “There are journalists who are paid less than $1 a word, sometimes $20 for a blog post, and the quality will suffer.”

Some brands are still early in the learning curve. Bill Momary, CEO at Ebyline, said he has been approached by companies asking for 40 to 50 pieces of content a month, ignorant of the costs involved. “The budgets in those examples—if they’re asking for 700 to 900 words, fully reported, magazine-type features—that comes out to 30 cents a word,” he said.

One reason for the low prices offered could be that native has a precedent in traditional advertorials (skeptics maintain they’re the same thing), so it suffers from advertorials’ second-class status. For many journalists, too, there remains a stigma associated with writing for marketers on the side.

In publishers’ defense, native is expensive to create and difficult to scale (though many third-party companies are trying to solve that), and keeping expenses low is critical. One former online publishing executive recalled the challenge of meeting brands’ demand for native ads that match the host site’s editorial voice. “When we’d try to negotiate a rate with an outside blogger, we’d have to negotiate a fixed rate, and all of a sudden the margins look like shit,” the exec said.

Things are improving. Vivian Manning-Schaffel, a journalist who writes for mainstream media as well as marketers, said brands that once asked for blog posts now seek reported articles. “It’s moving toward more of an advertorial model, which is a more sustainable model for journalists like myself,” she said.

The rise of native brought the prospect of income for freelance journalists hobbled by the ad recession; clearly, that hasn’t become a reality for all. But apart from freelancers losing out, a greater downside of doing native on the cheap is that it could lead to low-quality content and undermine a format that many publishers are staking their financial futures on.