The answer lies in the failing business model of most newspapers and many media companies. More than one in five local newspapers has closed since 2004, according to a University of North Carolina study. This is largely because of a shift to digital formats. Digital ads don’t bring in nearly as much revenue as print ads and an entire lucrative section of the newspaper — classified ads — was replaced by online services such as Craigslist.
Given that dire context, newspapers and media companies are looking for new revenue streams. Enter branded content, also known as native advertising. The media companies create an in-house creative ad agency that works with advertisers to find new ways to reach audiences. You can read more about The New York Times’ T Brand Studio here. Much of the content/advertising created blurs the lines between editorial and advertising. As you saw in class, clear labeling indicating that it is an ad can be hard to find or missing altogether.
It’s not just newspapers. Television news and entertainment companies also do branded content which can appear like regular interviews or segments.
So how is this acceptable? No one said it is. Native advertising and branded content is a relatively new and developing field. There has been criticism, including of one high-profile case with the Church of Scientology and The Atlantic, but I think the practice has gone mostly under the radar outside of media circles.
Our goal is to help you recognize what you are reading and seeing so you can make your own judgment about whether the overall practice or individual cases are acceptable. If you think it’s a problem, raise the issue with the publication and the advertiser. That’s your power as a news literate citizen and a consumer.