Monday, March 21, 2016

The Rest Is Advertising

Recently, I landed the tech-journalism equivalent of a Thomas Pynchon interview: I got someone from Twitter to answer my call. Notorious for keeping its communications department locked up tight, Twitter is not only the psychic bellwether and newswire for the media industry, but also a stingy interview-granter, especially now that it’s floundering with poor profits, executive turnover, and a toxic culture. I’ve tried to get them on the record before. No one has replied.

This time, though, a senior executive from one of Twitter’s key divisions seemed happy—eager, even—to talk with me, and for as long as I wanted. You might even say he prattled. I was a little stunned: I’d been writing about tech matters for years as a freelance journalist, and this was far more access than I was used to receiving. What was different? I was calling as a reporter—but not exactly. I was writing a story for The Atlantic—but not for the news division. Instead, I was working for a moneymaking wing of The Atlantic called Re:think, and I was writing sponsored content.

In case you haven’t heard, journalism is now in perpetual crisis, and conditions are increasingly surreal. The fate of the controversialists at Gawker rests on a delayed jury trial over a Hulk Hogan sex tape. Newspapers publish directly to Facebook, and Snapchat hires journalists away from CNN. Last year, the Pulitzer Prizes doubled as the irony awards; one winner in the local reporting category, it emerged, had left his newspaper job months earlier for a better paying gig in PR. “Is there a future in journalism and writing and the Internet?” Choire Sicha, cofounder of The Awl ,wrote last January. “Haha, FUCK no, not really.” Even those who have kept their jobs in journalism, he explained, can’t say what they might be doing, or where, in a few years’ time. Disruption clouds the future even as it holds it up for worship.

But for every crisis in every industry, a potential savior emerges. And in journalism, the latest candidate is sponsored content.

Also called native advertising, sponsored content borrows the look, the name recognition, and even the staff of its host publication to push brand messages on unsuspecting viewers. Forget old-fashioned banner ads, those most reviled of early Internet artifacts. This is vertically integrated, barely disclaimed content marketing, and it’s here to solve journalism’s cash flow problem, or so we’re told. “15 Reasons Your Next Vacation Needs to Be in SW Florida,” went a recent BuzzFeed headline—just another listicle crying out for eyeballs on an overcrowded homepage, except this one had a tiny yellow sidebar to announce, in a sneaky whisper, “Promoted by the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.”

Advertorials are what we expect out of BuzzFeed, the ur-source of digital doggerel and the first media company to open its own in-house studio—a sort of mini Saatchi & Saatchi—to build “original, custom content” for brands. But now legacy publishers are following BuzzFeed’s lead, heeding the call of the digital co-marketers and starting in-house sponsored content shops of their own. CNN opened one last spring, and its keepers, with nary a trace of self-awareness, dubbed it Courageous. The New York Times has T Brand Studio (clients include Dell, Shell, and Goldman Sachs), the S. I. Newhouse empire has something called 23 Stories by Condé Nast, and The Atlantic has Re:think. As the breathless barkers who sell the stuff will tell you, sponsored content has something for everyone. Brands get their exposure, publishers get their bankroll, freelancer reporters get some work on the side, and readers get advertising that goes down exceptionally easy—if they even notice they’re seeing an ad at all.

The promise is that quality promotional content will sit cheek-by-jowl with traditional journalism, aping its style and leveraging its prestige without undermining its credibility.

The problem, as I learned all too quickly when I wrote my sponsored story for The Atlantic (paid for by a prominent tech multinational), is that the line between what’s sponsored and what isn’t—between advertising and journalism—has already been rubbed away.

by Jacob Silverman, The Baffler |  Read more:
Image: Eric Hanson