BERNSTEIN: Penny for your words
Newspapers should not use sponsored content as a source of revenue
In the time we’ve been away from Grounds, the country and the world have faced major challenges — from the recent exposure of police brutality to the continued disruption in the Middle East, there is no shortage of controversies to discuss. In the face of these issues, one controversy that has almost managed to slip under the radar is the question of whether or not newspapers, magazines and online publications should solicit so-called “native advertising” or sponsored content — advertisements that more or less mask themselves as legitimate articles. This controversial form of advertising is currently used by newspapers as prominent as The New York Times and is being considered by The Cavalier Daily.
Advertising as it exists now already has a strong and negative impact on pure news content. In televised media, more views means more profitable advertising — profitable for the advertiser and for the news channel. Concerns over what leads to a larger viewership can sway channels to focus on some news stories over others, slanting the direction of the media and therefore the viewer’s perception of what’s happening in the world. In print media, advertisers want their ads to be placed alongside news stories that don’t put their products in a negative light — for example, a car company wouldn’t want its ad placed next to an article about a recent six-car pile-up, for fear a reader would make a subconscious connection between the two, thereby developing an aversion to that particular car.
With the influence of advertising already in effect, one can only imagine how much more impactful sponsored content would and can be. A key element of journalism is the division between the editorial side of the news and general management (i.e., those who determine what is profitable).
We often hear that journalism is a dying industry, but what this really means is that in the highly competitive and often free world of internet news, journalism is becoming far less profitable, especially since advertising online is highly ineffective. Those in the U.S. who read their news online will click on a banner advertisement roughly 0.18 percent of the time — not a number advertisers are jumping up and down about.
Sponsored content, on the other hand, is highly lucrative, both because of the larger space it can take up and because of the way it can play with readers’ minds. By camouflaging an advertisement as an article, corporations can subtly sway us toward their products under the pretense that what we’re reading is objective content. We won’t know we’re being sold something, and advertisers likely won’t be held to the standard typical reporters are held to, since the very goal of sponsored content prevents the use of what a reporter might consider proper fact-checking.
News outlets and advertisers pursuing native advertising counter that there are labels on sponsored articles that reveal that they are, in fact, sponsored. But the size and noticeability of these labels are both minimal; perhaps on a site like Buzzfeed sponsored content is relatively identifiable, but even on The New York Times’ website — which has more standard reporting than Buzzfeed does anyway — sponsored content is virtually indistinguishable from real articles. A study by the Interactive Advertising Bureau suggests that average readers are able to tell the difference between the two well less than half the time.
The consequences of this are obvious: native advertising manipulates readers, distorts the news and destroys the supposed wall between the editorial and business sides of journalism. Unfortunately, at this point, there is little we can do to prevent its escalation, as native advertising becomes more integral to business models. But before The Cavalier Daily or other media enter into this dangerous territory, we can attempt to dissuade them.
I may be biased, but in my opinion The Cavalier Daily is an upstanding and high-quality newspaper, and one that offers a unique service to our University and to Charlottesville by maintaining high standards for its reporters and pursuing investigative pieces. Of course, with its existing business model — with which, I admit, I am not intimately familiar — breaking even is not so easy; as an independent organization and not a CIO, the paper receives no money from the University, and advertising revenue often does not fully cover all expenses.
But though sponsored content would probably be the most lucrative next step, it is the least honorable one. Perhaps sponsored content would not have the immense impact on The Cavalier Daily’s reporting and readership that it could have on that of larger and more widely read news media, but any impact at all is too much. This view may be idealistic, but so is the nature of any college newspaper put together by unpaid and dedicated students. Particularly while other papers fail to live up to true journalistic standards, The Cavalier Daily should not give in to such a potentially harmful practice.
Dani Bernstein is a Senior Associate Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.