Journalism vs. advertising – conflicts of interest

There is advertising.

And there is journalism.

The difference used to be primarily about who says what, where, and who pays for it.

The brand’s voice is reflected as-is in advertising which is placed in media channels for a fee.

The brand’s voice was reflected through the lens of a journalist and was placed in editorial spaces without a fee.

The concept of owned media did not exist before the world wide web. Even advertorials were simply advertisements masquerading as editorial but called out. How clearly was the disclosure was a matter of convenience on the part of the media house’s church (editorial team) vs. state marketing team) policy.

But with the internet came brand websites. They don’t have the readership of media channels, but they could be accessed on-demand, via search.

Most brands started by making their websites seem like brochures – understandably. Why waste time beating around the bush?

Social media gave more options for ‘owned media’. If a website was like a central headquarters of a company in terms of owned media, having a presence on social media platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram was like the brand walking alongside people on a crowded street. Whether the people walking near you notice you too or not depended on how interestingly you say whatever it is you are saying.

At some point, the print media’s advertorials moved to the digital news media and were called ‘native advertising’. The idea was still the same – find a spot in a media channel that people are already habituated to and camouflage the branded content to make it look like ‘news’.

The reason for this lengthy intro? A print advertisement by Godfrey Dadich Partners in The New York Times on Tuesday. The pitch?

“We bring together the best of journalism, strategy, and design into The New Editorial”.

What is The New Editorial?

The volume of content produced by business overshadows traditional media and continues to grow. Today brands tell their stories directly and participate genuinely in the global exchange of ideas. And they are doing far more than promoting themselves.

They are speaking—publishing, broadcasting, engaging—with the quality, creativity, and intellectual vibrancy that were once the exclusive domain of the Fourth Estate.

Clients? Nike, Lyft, Netflix, GE, and so on.

That is an interesting pitch – to use the approach and rigor in the story-telling quality of mainstream media journalism to tell brand stories on platforms that are owned by the brand!

To some extent, an equivalent would be to rope in a famous film-maker to shoot your advertisement (that the brand places in media channels using a fee unlike the movie by the film-maker that people pay to watch). And this is quite common in the advertising world.

Can’t advertising or digital agencies do this ‘New Editorial’? That’s where Godfrey Dadich’s pitch gets very specific: “GDP’s team of reporters, documentary producers, and editors collectively have more than 350 years of journalism experience. They use the same tools that wired, The New York Times, Netflix, HBO, and other media entities do”!

Now, many media organizations too offer their ‘journalists’ as a service to produce branded content. But in such cases, the output was meant only for the concerned media channel/platform, with or without it being called ‘advertisement’ (this is where things get really grey).

So, a couple of broad contours of the story so far:

1. When journalists are involved in producing a brand’s content

An example is Godfrey Dadich’s pitch where they have former journalists on their rolls; not existing journalists.

2. Where such content is placed

An example is ‘T Brand’, owned by The New York Times. To clarify that they do not involve current journalists from NYT, they mention, “Inspired by the journalism and innovation of The New York Times“.

As for placement, it is, “We create stories that live across The New York Times Advertising platform and guarantee reach via a mix of Times channels“.

Where things get murky:

1. When an agency commits to involving journalists who are on the rolls of a media organization to produce a brand’s content

An example, from Edelman, under what they call “Collaborative Journalism“.

2. When a media platform greys the line between content created by its journalists who are reporting vs. journalists who are producing a brand’s content for a fee

A couple of examples, from Mint and The Times of India (there are a lot on this, from many Indian media organizations).

To be sure, this is an evolving space. There is obviously more money in branded content than news content, though The New York Times is the only media organization that is breaking that rule!

The crux of the problems in this evolving space has always been about ‘conflict of interest’ of a person who is supposed to not take sides and report impartially and boldly… talking about a particular brand like a brochure, for a fee. The internet is stretching that basic conflict of interest in a lot of intriguing directions.



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