Going native: The death of journalism or the way of the future?

By Ira Basen, J-Source Future of News editor

By Ira Basen, J-Source Future of News editor

August 27, 2012 – The Washington Post announces it is extending its BrandConnect program of sponsored content to allow “native advertising” to run in its print editions. “A big part of native is to create experiences for brands in the printed pages where there wasn’t formerly advertising,” explained the Post’s Chief Revenue Officer Kevin Gentzel.

August 7, 2013 – The Globe and Mail posts job openings for “reporters” in its Custom Content Group, which is described as “a division of Advertising that resides within the newsroom.”

Remember that chapter in your journalism textbook about the wall between editorial and marketing? It was often described using the analogy of “church and state,” sometimes even “oil and vinegar.” Choose two things that were never supposed to mix, and that’s how impenetrable that newsroom wall was supposed to be.

It was never really that way, of course. The automobile section of the newspaper, the homes section, the travel section—they all had relationships with advertisers that didn’t exactly meet the ethical gold standard. But these are desperate times for many publishers, and advertisers are looking for help in breaking through the commercial clutter.

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Enter “native advertising.” Never heard of it? More and more publishers are convinced it will play an important role in whatever new business model for news emerges out of journalism’s current economic crisis.

The essence of native advertising is that content that originates from a brand should be given the same prominence on the page or the screen as editorial content. The source of the content should always be clearly identified on the screen or the page, but Lewis D’Vorkin, the chief product officer at Forbes Media, believes that advertisers are no longer prepared to see their content relegated into an ad ghetto.

“Advertisers want their message to be part of the natural flow of the product in which the journalism appears,” D’Vorkin explained in an interview from his office in New York. “They want their message not to be to the right or to the left, but actually in that stream or river of content so the reader, user, consumer, is able to see it. And that’s what you need to do in order to remain a profitable media company and continue to do the journalism that you like to be able to do.”

D’Vorkin is a leading apostle of native advertising, and depending on your perspective, he is either a visionary at the vanguard of inventing a new business model for news, or a grave threat to the future of journalism.

Three years ago he launched Forbes BrandVoice in order to give Forbes’s advertisers a more prominent place on Forbes.com and in the magazine. Content provided by brands is virtually indistinguishable in subject matter and appearance from content provided by Forbes’s contributors. Only the BrandVoice designation alerts the reader that what they are reading is a story generated by one of BrandVoice’s marketing partners, who pay up to $75,000 U.S. a month for the privilege of participating in the program. By the end of this year, Forbes is projecting that revenue generated by BrandVoice will account for about 25 per cent of Forbes.com’s total advertising revenue. 

D’Vorkin is convinced that Forbes readers have no problem accepting content generated by advertisers. “The audience just wants great information from people who know what they’re speaking about,” he argued. “To say that a marketer is not knowledgeable about their own industry is foolhardy.”

The success of BrandVoice has inspired many established media outlets, including the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and the New Yorker, to experiment with various native advertising formats. 

In Canada, the Toronto-based DigitalJournal.com has begun including “Promoted Content” on its site. Unlike Forbes BrandVoice, which places all its sponsored content in one place, Digital Journal mixes its brand-based stories in with stories written by its regular contributors.   

Digital Journal’s front page recently featured a story in its business section headlined “Home renos taking the floor in Canada.” The story, written by a Digital Journal contributor, revealed that flooring was Canada’s leading home renovation project. It was only the words “Promoted Content,” written in 10-point font at the top of the page, that indicated that the article was paid for by an advertiser.

Digital Journal CEO Chris Hogg believes that there’s no danger in brands being associated with media companies, so long as the relationship is disclosed in a completely transparent manner. Hogg acknowledged that there will always be disagreements about whether sites are going far enough in differentiating sponsored content from editorial content, but he argued it will take some time to figure out how this will all work out.     

“Advertisers are spending lots of money to have this type of content produced,” he explained. “So when they knock on a media company’s door saying. ‘Here’s X million dollars to go do this,’ no executive in the world is going to say no to that. It’s just, how do you fit it in to a traditional model is the piece that is still being ironed out.”

However this ultimately gets ironed out, it appears that native advertising will play an ever larger role in the economic equation of media companies of all kinds. Some sort of sponsored content will be part of the new business model for news. The wall between marketing and editorial is quickly disappearing. And it’s time to figure out some new rules.

Listen to Basen’s documentary “A Brand New World," which aired on The Sunday Edition on CBC Radio One.