Native Advertising: Not just a Problem of One

AN ONLINE exchange between Renee Julienne Karunungan of 350.org, a non-profit NGO and Rappler questioned, among other things, the partnership of Rappler with Shell Corporation. Karunungan shared links and screen shots related to the issue.

CMFR had picked up the thread on Facebook: In her post, Karunungan said Rappler invited a freelance journalist to write about an environmental project of Shell Corporation, one of Rappler’s partners in Brandrap, its sponsored content arm.

Karunungan was concerned about several issues, among which was Rappler’s partnership with an oil company. The thread which followed also carried Rappler’s response to Karunungan. Glenda Gloria, Rappler managing editor, clarified that the staff assigned to look for a writer did not know at the time that he/she approached a journalist. She also said that Rappler maintains control over all its content, and that the issue would be discussed internally.

“Native advertising” is one of the names given to a practice that has now become part of the business model of some news organizations here and abroad. In response to corporate clients, news organizations now produce content that is written up as news, at times mimicking the same news style of the news organization but produced as part of an advertising package. It is, however, usually labeled as sponsored content to forewarn readers.

CMFR has published articles on PR issues and the conflicts which arise from negative news involving an advertiser in the early print format of the Philippine Journalism Review (PJR). But CMFR has not recently reviewed the current state of editorial and advertising relationships prevailing in Philippine media.

Thus, CMFR limits this discussion to the practice, also called “branded journalism”—or what was previously more plainly called “advertorials” in traditional newsrooms. It involves paid-for advertising material, written up as stories, and presented as news content produced by journalists.

Internet and advertising

The concern is timely as it signals the need for a public airing of the issues involved in the advertising industry’s shift to this style of marketing. The discussion should involve the advertising industry, corporations, and the media so they can work together to preserve the integrity of journalistic content in an age that has opened every possible media vehicle to the marketing of products and services. The development has disrupted the traditional formats for advertising and compelled news organizations to adjust editorially to advertising needs.

Developments in communication technology have already eroded the distinctions that set apart the news from other types of information. New media and the Internet have shown the dynamic fusion of all kinds of messages, with nothing much to set apart different kinds of content. The flow mixes made-up or imagined realities, news bits from citizen journalists, and personal information along with advertisements in and out of digital boxes.
Businesses now view advertising in media in an entirely different way, demanding the removal of the red lines and firewalls. No more lines to separate the space for news content and for paid advertisement. No more labels. No more announced break or pause for commercials. Corporate advertisers want their messages written in or embedded in the content of media, whatever the subject—whether entertainment, sports, show business, or political news and public affairs.
Multinationals now invest in whole departments devoted to producing stories about their products or related trends, all designed to drive up the consumption of their goods and services.

Leading news organizations abroad have created units which produce their sponsored editorial content, in the same way that Brandrap works for Rappler.

News and Non-news

Advertising pressure on the editorial process is not new. Advertisers have required special sections and supplements, for institutional as well as commercial information. Publishers have accepted their dictates in back-of-the-book sections.

Broadcast media uses a range of creative mechanisms that flow through their news content: the casual positive reference to a product or brand incorporated into a script of a news reader or cleverly adlibbed by broadcasters on radio, television and teleradyo; the acknowledgements of suppliers of the news personalities’ clothing and make-up, sets and props of a talk show venue. It happens too in film, where the hero is seen driving a particular car make and model, wearing a sponsor's suit and watch.

Different news companies have dealt differently with the question of anchors and journalists as product endorsers, with some prohibiting and others allowing the practice. Such practices have softened the lines separating journalistic content from the selling of products.

As troublesome as it may be, this has resulted in newsworthy advertorials, producing reports on innovative products, on new business approaches and life-changing trends. Indeed, corporate trends are of public interest and their coverage justified.

But the boundary between editorial content and advertising, between journalistic work and marketing has been a long and noble tradition in the news business. Some publishers, like Raul Locsin, a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for journalism, built a virtual firewall to protect the editorial department from such interference. As publisher/owner of BusinessWorld, he proudly denied advertising space to companies whose agents insisted on more than their paid-for ad space.

In an ideal world, decisions about news content should be made independently by the editors and journalists who produce news stories and accounts without consideration of revenues. When advertising interests play into the decision, such content requires labeling as a sponsored story.

The US Congress recognized the importance of the distinction way back in 1912, when it passed the Newspaper Publicity Act. The Act required that items presented as news be labeled as advertising when a commercial concern paid for the content. According to Tracie Powell in an article posted on December 5, 2013 in Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), the law is still in effect today (“Native ads aren’t as clear as outlets think”).
But in the real world, the business model for news has slowly shifted to favor advertisers’ desires or demands, allowing these to further shape editorial content, sections and pages. Witness the growth of sections on products and lifestyle issues which have become larger than news and op-ed sections.

The truth is a bitter pill to swallow and should be acknowledged by anyone interested in the news: subscriptions pay only a fraction of what it costs to publish a newspaper. Advertising revenues make it possible for newspapers to pay journalists better wages and make a profit for owners and stakeholders. The corporatization of media production makes all this seem normal. On free TV, advertisers rule almost completely. News shows, like drama and variety programs, compete for ratings and news directors line up stories not just on the basis of importance and relevance but also according to popular appeal.

"Marketers argue that branded content allows for more relevant and highly targeted messaging and provides added value to consumers by increasing awareness and generating buzz and engagement around their products. Critics, on the other hand, respond that this practice improperly exploits consumers’ trust in a publisher or deceives them outright to influence their purchasing decisions."

"Native ads aren’t as clear as outlets think," Colombia Journalism Review, 2013

Existential Question

As radio, TV and digital media have chipped away at print’s advertising share of the pie, the issue of “native advertising” has emerged as an existential question. The practice secures the all-important flow of advertising revenue to sustain the news enterprise.

The CJR (November-December 2014) published “Wolf at the door: Should journalism worry about content marketing?”— the title referring to the erosion of advertising revenue for mainstream news organizations. The writer, Michael Canyon Meyer, entered the world of “newsrooms” created by and housed in corporations, dedicated to the production of news stories, features, videos, tweets and other social media instruments, in other words, content about its service or product.

Meyer focused his discussion on The Feed, which he described as “explicitly aligned with the interests of the world’s second-largest pet food company” Nestle’s Purina Petcare. Writers for The Feed and others like it are engaged in a special genre that Meyer describes as broad enough to incorporate different journalistic approaches but too broad to be defined, even by its practitioners. In this manner, corporations have been able to communicate directly with their target market.
The decline in advertising revenues for news has driven editors to defer to business managers, even to consider the kinds of stories favored by prospective advertisers. Native advertising which requires content that reflects the journalistic style of the media company has provoked widespread protest within journalistic communities even as leading news organizations have accepted it.

The issue has not yet caused the same level of discussion in the Philippines. Media which report on business trends have not focused on this trend, nor on its significance on the practice of journalism in the service of public interest.

Despite the strong stand taken by a previous generation of editors and publishers, the lines between marketing and editorial have been breached more substantively in local media practice. Note that there are more pages now devoted to lifestyle, travel and sports, areas that have made freebie trips and complimentary resort stays and the like are part of the familiarization process.

Coverage of national and local news lets pass reprint word-for-word of press releases from congress or city hall; news accounts based only on what one politician said in exchange for a fee. Studies have documented the practice of wholesale coverage of candidates during a campaign, with contracts written up in headquarters assuring exposure for politicians.

The email sent to us provides CMFR with an opportunity to review the basis for the separation of territory which has ruled newsrooms in the past: the separation between one, the area dominated by the editorial staff that produces news content and the other ruled by marketing agents selling space and time for externally produced advertising.

Joined together, would the news business retain its capacity to serve its mandate to inform citizens about policy and public affairs and to create a public forum for debate and the exchange of ideas?

Leading news organizations abroad suggest that “native advertising” can succeed at the journalistic level, creating news stories, Q and A’s, explainers, according to their own standards, basing these on facts, on independent research, filling it in with all that makes good journalism, strong characters and strong writing, authenticity and truth. Some have been described as succeeding, providing examples when the advertorial works as a form of journalism.

One can imagine such content as growing out of advertising links but produced by journalists on their own, over which advertisers have no control, and generated by the demands of commerce, trade, lifestyle and a range of issues of public interest and curiosity.

But lingering doubt about the practice must be addressed. The literature on the subject refers to the shared belief that fine lines or labels must keep advertising content identifiable as such.

"As content marketers grow more sophisticated, they will continue to adopt the trappings of journalism if not the journalistic mission, creating a world in which more and more content looks and feels the same but in fact isn’t. The truth is, we’ve always been out there in the information landscape on our own, choosing what to trust and what to ignore."

"Should journalism worry about content marketing?" Colombia Journalism Review, 2014

A Matter of Trust

In the Philippine context, it boils down to the question of trust. Has the news industry gained so much credibility as to freely roam into this field without affecting its legitimacy? From the other side of the media, are Filipinos prepared and equipped to detect what is product news and independent news? More important, are Filipinos concerned enough to check the standards of news writing, and to demand that journalists provide them with information and news that they need to know so they can participate as citizens in the country’s public affairs?

The fusion of every kind of message into one stream of consciousness tends to water down the value of journalistic content, of verified news. The experience with bloggers galore, social media 24/7, the mix of mis- and disinformation require the highest level of media literacy and the most vigorous disciplinary orientation for an individual to be able to sort out the truth and relevance of the information received.

We in CMFR think labeling is important, even as we acknowledge the fundamental synergy between advertising and news, of advertising revenues as the lifeblood of the press as a commercial industry. The demarcating mechanisms may not do the job of helping an audience to differentiate and to discern. But it forces news organizations to a standard of transparency and accountability.

Branded content should be identified as produced by the brand marketing unit, and this unit should be manned by a group of writers/reporters separate from the journalists reporting the news.

At this time, it is important to draw the line from the rest of work that has no attached revenue string to it.

The Role of the Press

As it is not just a problem of one, there is need for multiple solutions.

A primary consideration in what CMFR hopes will be a continuing dialogue involving the communities of news, advertising and business corporations is the role that the press plays in assuring the growth of an informed public, without which there can be no real democracy. Anything that interferes with that function must be closely scrutinized and interrogated.

Such scrutiny of social media communication has come too late. In the Philippine context, the free and abundant market of ideas was quickly and promptly captured by those who spread fake news and drummed false claims into the consciousness of an unthinking public. Further blurring the demarcation between news and advertising can only contribute to the unconscious dismissal of the purpose of news in public life.

That native advertising is now being done openly and practiced by leading international news providers does not diminish the dangers of the practice.