With the rise of online players, the old advertising model of supporting news media is largely a thing of the past. As a consequence, more and more media outlets are now boosting their balance sheets by selling a new kind of service to corporate customers, their ability to tell stories and connect with audiences.
"In a very short period of time, money which predominantly went to magazines, newspapers, now goes to online platforms," Angela Phillips, professor of journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London, told The Listening Post. "Against that background, news publishers started looking for a new way of sucking advertising back in and what they said to advertisers was, 'Why don't you let us design your ads for you'?"
In recent years, a growing number of news outlets have established in-house teams for the production of what many in the industry have termed native advertising - branded content on behalf of corporate clients that often looks and feels like journalistic content.
A 2017 survey by the Native Advertising Institute found that 50 percent of the media organisations it questioned considered native advertising to be "very important" to their business.
According to Ava Sirrah, PhD candidate at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and former creative strategist for the New York Times' T-Brand Studio, "There's always been a relationship between industry, companies, PR firms, ad agencies and reporters. However, native advertising is very different because a reporter can hang up on a public relations call, right? Well, what happens when the native advertising agency exists one floor above you? When both of you work at the same publication."
Respected names in the news business, such as the New York Times, stress the strict separation between "church" - the personnel responsible for editorial content, and "state" - the business side of the organisation.
"Something that is never to be tampered with is the utter independence of our newsroom from the commercial interest of an individual advertiser," said Meredith Kopit Levien, EVP and chief operating officer of the New York Times. "We had to create a group of people who could go out and make stories for brands that were entirely separate from the newsroom operation of the New York Times. We would share the storytelling tools. But we would never share the storytellers."
However, the church-state distinction is one which London's large circulation free newspaper, the Evening Standard, appears to have blurred to the point of erasure. Back in May, an expose by Open Democracy revealed that the Standard was offering not just branded content but "money can't buy" positive news and "favourable" comment pieces that would appear to readers as journalism.
"What you're actually saying is, we're going to hoodwink our audience so that our audience doesn't realise that you've paid us. And your name will just slip into the news coverage," said Phillips. "Now, this really does blur the line between what is permissible as advertising, as paid for content, and what is not."
For Janine Jackson of Freedom and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), that gets to the heart of the problem with native advertising.
"With native advertising, your ad seems to be a little bit more under the aegis of this respectable news organisation. Native advertising is just an effort to confuse readers to think that they're getting something other than an ad."
Meredith Kopit Levien - EVP and chief operating officer, The New York Times
Angela Phillips - Professor, Goldsmiths University of London
Ava Sirrah - PhD candidate, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and former T-Brand
Janine Jackson - Programme director, FAIR
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