What Buzzfeed does is fascinating. I’m not just talking about the lists that seem to capture viral attention, but they way the site blends editorial content (PR people often call it “earned media”) with content paid for directly by marketing dollars.
I touched on this in a previous post, but I should note that the idea is not limited to Buzzfeed. This morning Globe Columnist Scott Kirsner called out BostInno for being part of the trend:
@scottkirsner It’s by far the worst trend in media. And many are doing it.
— Curt Woodward (@curtwoodward) May 10, 2013
He’s obviously not alone in that thought.
I’m guessing that most people will respond with relative revulsion at the collapse of wall that often seemingly exists between editorial and advertising. I still wonder if the wall ever truly existed or if it was just a myth we told ourselves to keep our conscience clear.
Journalists love to look to the past as the best time for journalism (though at least one major journalist believes the best time is now), but even Edward R. Murrow had to bow to the whims of his advertisers. While journalists remember him for See it Now, the show didn’t last all that long, especially once Alcoa pulled its advertising.
I know many writers who make their money both as reporters and as paid freelance writers for companies, many of which can eventually be included in their coverage area. We don’t usually question this.
Over my career I’ve scheduled many reporter meetings with clients, especially at trade shows, that happen to include a publisher who does a sales pitch at the end. This is part of the business and always has been.
Of course, reporters tried not to be directly involved in the process, and one of my journalism professors used to give a speech at the end of the semester imploring his journalism students to not even eat the food that PR people put out at a press event for fear of impacting our reporting.
During a speech concluding Social Media Weekend, Steve Rubel talked about what he saw as the future of paid media engagements that would involve situations similar to the naming rights of baseball fields. Citibank may pay for the naming rights to the Mets’ ballpark, but they have no say in how the team handles itself. The same will be true of journalists, where an organization may pay for a journalistic series of supplement to a website or magazine, but ultimately won’t have much say in what gets written about. Though, they may choose to buy the supplement based no the topic area.
The sounds of dissent in the audience came through loud and clear. Journalists were not happy about this direct relationship with advertisers.
The core question remains difficult to answer. Will the average person care whether the story they’re reading is paid for by an advertiser? Will it change how they judge the copy? Or did they view, say, political journalism in a different light than business reporting or features?
These aren’t easy questions to answer. Does a reporter become biased by working on the advertising side? Or does advertising gain a more objective and compelling style? What limits are in place within the “paid content” world to ensure that the news consumer knows exactly what they’re getting?
It’s what makes this time in communications so incredibly exciting.