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Is the future of journalism “advertiser-driven content”? The advertiser as publisher

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The traditional firewall between editorial and advertising–a staple ethical and practical tenet of publishing for at least a century–is being breached, and Ground Zero for this incursion is online.

This leakage never, or only extremely rarely, would have happened in traditional print media, where the guardians of the firewall, including editorial staff but also ombudsmen and even publishers with a sense of moral rectitude, would not have permitted it.

However, online, the traditional rules are being dissolved. Experiments are taking place: website owners and online publications are seeing how much they can get away with (in breaching the firewall) before critical blowback goes nuclear.

But the question is, will it? Do the people accessing the digital world and getting the majority of their information from their smart phones and tablets–mainly younger people–know, or care, who writes the content they read? As long as they’re getting [free] information they find useful and/or entertaining, are they fussy whom it comes from?

All indications are that the answer is no.

Will this integration of editoriai and advertising become the new reality? Have we reached that point on the slippery slope where the only way forward is down?

These questions need to be asked.

Experts in the field–usually consultants selling their services–suggest a win-win: content that helps readers and viewers, but that also fulfills advertisers’ needs. Sounds good, but can this win-win actually be achieved? If it can, then why did generations of publishers and journalists labor so long and hard to create the firewall to begin with? Was their concern simply an unjustified fear that “truth” (that elusive quality) would be compromised by the profit motive of advertisers? Did they simply suffer from a phobia, like fear of flying, that had no basis in reality? Or did they know something that we’re in danger of forgetting?

I can’t answer these questions. But what concerns me–and should concern all writers who wish to make a living through journalism–is that the very nature and substance of journalism, as the West has understood it for 400 years, is under dire threat. It may be that what is in the best interests of consumers and providers of digital content is actually a death sentence for writers, who may be the gas lamp lighters and ice delivery truck drivers of the 21st century–anachronized out of existence. In fact, we already see this occurring now, with “customized content” delivered to your inbox by software whose creators or users have proprietary, for-profit relationships with advertisers whose “articles” are thinly disguised pitches that don’t even bear the warning “advertorial” label. (If Facebook knows that you’re into fly fishing, you may find yourself getting articles that look interesting but whose purpose is not only to inform, but to lure you to sponsoring resorts or fishing equipment.)

This revolution is happening faster than any layperson can possibly suspect. I mention all this not to point fingers, or to put things into blunt black-and-white terms when, in reality, things are more complicated. But we are entering a world in which discerning consumers of information must ask themselves a few questions:

1.   Where is this information coming from?

2.   Who wrote it?

3.   Why is it being sent to me?

4.   What was the motive of the person or organization who is sending it to me?

5.   Has there been an attempt to influence my behavior?

6.   Has this attempt been camouflaged in such a way as to suggest that the sender is not being transparent?

Informed consumers will demand these answers. There’s some evidence that this demand for greater transparency already is occurring (e.g. the fears of government intrusion into our phone and online conversations; the resistence to Facebook ads popping up in our feeds). However there may be considerably more evidence that, in the end, consumers, and especially young ones, don’t give a damn.

What this means for the world of wine writing is clear and ominous. Readers need to understand whether they’re getting untrammeled information and opinion from reputable, reliable sources they know and trust. Or, they need to understand if those sources are picking and choosing the information they offer based on payment. It’s that simple.

  1. GrapesRGreat says:

    I first noticed this phenomenon when HuffPo bought out AOL. Now, whenever I sign into my AOL email account, the “TOP NEWS” stories are a blend of actual news and disguised adverts with the two being largely indistinguishable. The only fail-safe tell of which is which is the subject of the “article.” If it has something to do with dieting/dating/new technology, it is likely just advertising. Came across as blatantly deceptive to me.

    Facebook to me is less of an issue, because I certainly don’t go there for news.

  2. Dear GrapesRGreat, that’s interesting about AOL. Thanks.

  3. Think of good journalism as a product.

    Think of advertising as something that wishes to be associated with a good product.

    Think of adulterating the news product by introducing hidden pimps and whores.

    Think of how much LESS valuable the now-degraded product is worth and how UNcredible the “news” is for readers.

    Try wondering why you would want your advertising associated with a spoiled product.

    The hidden hand of adulteration lies not only in advertiser driven content which is not disclosed, but in other ways: subtle advertiser pressure, the “old boy-ism” of too-close familiarity between editors and advertisers, peer-pressure, reluctance to rock the boat, and the chummy club-like atmosphere found throughout way too many trade journals.

  4. Excellent relevant article…Didn’t expect to read this in a wine blog but why not? Your insights are about a very scary future. We had this discussion with our son and a couple of his friends recently. Their reaction was,”We don’t have time to worry about…” your six questions, Steve. They are very bright, very busy and seemed to agree in theory with your/our concerns. I got the sense that they live in a land of magical thinking where everything will all work out somehow. Maybe I’m just too cynical.

  5. Dear Annie, thanks. Magical thinking is a good way to describe it.

  6. Lewis, all the things you point out have always lurked around the edges of journalism but the camel’s snout now has been followed by his whole head, next and upper torso climbing into the tent.

  7. Gotta say the first time I saw this kind of thinly veiled and shady stuff was with Food & Wine, a print publication, and I canceled my over 10 year subscription for it. Well that and they gave two flying craps about wine, (Syrah with Thanksgiving dinner?! Shut up) but mostly it was the couple page “articles” that if you squinted your eyes real hard and looked at the bottom of the pages read, “Advertisement”. Shady as all get out especially seeing as half the rag was already loaded with commercials. Having to pay for and work that hard to find any sort of actual information was just insulting.

  8. Everyone prefers the ad-free editorial, but who will pay for it?

    The firewall can only stand the assaults if there’s money behind it, so the questions is where the money will come from? Consumers have gotten used to not pay for news and information, and it might be hard to reverse that trend.

    The solution used by some other countries is government subsidized ad-free news production and at budgets infinitely higher (proportionally) than what’s allotted to PBS.

  9. I don’t mind the ad per se, it’s the ad disguised as an article that pisses me off.

  10. Anthony Spinetta says:

    Very well written, Steve. I’d like to see your essay move far beyond the realm of wine writing.

    Let’s remember that print journalism suffered through years of ‘yellow journalism’ while Hearst and Pulitzer were slugging it out during the latter years of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century. After each side tired of the other drawing attention to its innuendo and lies, news sources began to distinguish themselves by (Gasp!) producing insightful, truthful, and relevant JOURNALISM.

    Similar forces to the yellow era of Hearst and Pulitzer are undoubtedly at work today, but hundreds (thousands?) of online sources are grasping at straws to stand out from the crowd. Many of these sources willingly sell their content to the highest bidder, and many more display obvious disregard for journalistic standards with every sentence that they publish.

    The only cure for rampant yellow journalism is readers who demand accountability. The last five paragraphs of your post explain the situation more eloquently than I ever could.

    The younger crowd may embrace true journalism as they mature and as they tire of discovering that they’ve been betrayed or misled by their news sources. Let’s hope so.

    In the end, we’ll all get what we’re willing to pay for. We’ll also get what we deserve. If we the consumers keep clicking on stories about the Kardashians instead of reading long form investigative journalism (or even simple, truthful accounts of the day’s news), the producers will adjust and give the consumers what we currently demand – titillating garbage.

  11. Anthony, it’s always seemed to me that publishers have at least as much of a duty to tell readers what they need to know, as to tell them what they want to know. The trick is finding the balance. Hopefully, an educated and informed public will demand objective journalism. Unfortunately the country does not seem to be doing a very good job educating children right now which is something nobody seems to know what to do about.

  12. Samantha, if you don’t know that it’s an ad disguised as an article, that’s even scarier.

  13. Anthony Spinetta says:

    I agree with you, Steve.

    The rights ensured by the First Amendment come with the responsibility to truthfully inform the public.

  14. Steve: Wine Enthusiast. This post. Hahahahahahahaha.

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