Is it news or advertising? It’s getting harder to tell

"Healthy Tuesday:" Not really news

“Healthy Tuesday:” Not really news

Back in the days when the Internet was a military lab project, the newspapers and magazines worth reading took seriously the idea that advertising should never be allowed to pollute editorial content.

Many publications banned advertising personnel from the news room, and editors used to get upset when a story about a company appeared on the same page as an ad for that company. Advertisers who threatened to withhold their business because of real or imaged slights in the news pages were routinely given a polite rebuff.

But it’s a lot easier to be high-minded when you’re in a business that practically guarantees a good profit. Now that those days have disappeared with the rise of the Internet and no-holds-barred competition for advertising dollars, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish news from advertising, whether it’s print or online.

This intentional confusion, which is also infecting western Nevada County media, comes in a couple of different forms. On the Internet it’s called “native advertising,” paid messages intended to blend in with the content on the site.

While they are usually identified as “sponsored,” they share the look-and-feel of search results, tweets, status updates, blog posts and other content that you don’t immediately suspect of containing paid messages.

Unlike banner ads that people tend to ignore, native ads derive their power from being given equal placement with the unsponsored content you actually want to read. When ads appear as content they sneak past our B.S. detectors; they don’t look like ads, so we aren’t as skeptical.

The online marketplace is very competitive, and advertisers are in a position to keep asking sites for more. If they begin to notice that ads marked “sponsored” aren’t doing as well as they used to, they’ll demand fainter discloser, and they’ll get it.

Twitter calls its ads “promoted” messages (that can cost up to $200,000 a day) while BuzzFeed calls advertisers “featured partners,” which sounds more like an award than a paid relationship. Native ads are the main form of advertising on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and numerous news and entertainment sites.

In newspapers, these ads take the form of “sponsored content”–advertising that is meant to blend in with regular editorial content. A good local example is the two pages devoted to Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital that appear as the “Healthy Tuesday” feature of The Union.

The space is paid for by the hospital–information disclosed in small print at the top of the first page–and all editorial “content” for those pages is provided by people paid by the  hospital. Just to muddy the waters further, the pages carry conventional display ads promoting hospital services.

It’s not clear how many readers of The Union make the distinction between advertising and legitimate editorial content, particularly since a recent survey showed that “Meet Your Merchant”–blatant publicity disguised as a news feature–is popular among readers.

Sierra FoodWineArt Larded with plugs

Sierra FoodWineArt
Larded with plugs

The Union is not the only local media outlet that blurs the line between news and hype.  YubaNet and KNCO’s Web site routinely publish unedited press releases (free of charge) from a variety of sources, and Jeff Pelline’s Sierra Foothill Report plugs businesses that are advertisers in his money-making venture, Sierra FoodWineArt, a magazine that is larded with plugs for the businesses that advertise in it.

There’s only one solution to this problem: Keep your B.S. detector on maximum alert at all times.

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