Paid content and journalism: can we avoid selling out?


Newspapers use different labels for paid content. These phrases essentially all have the same meaning, but not all readers are privy to their actual significance. (Leah Jensen/Ryersonian)

Those within the journalism industry may be familiar with terms like “native advertising”, “custom content” and “advertorials”, but that familiarity comes with a great sense of ambiguity as each major news outlet seems to have varying definitions on what those terms mean.

After attending the latest Canadian Journalism Foundation J-Talk event on Thursday night called “Native Advertising: Journalism’s Saviour or Sellout?” I learned that the most appropriate umbrella term to describe this style is simply: paid content.

From the onset, moderator Ivor Shapiro, chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism, needed to establish what language would be used for the sake of uniformity for the remainder of the evening. The initial suggestion of using “native advertising” was snubbed by panellist Cathrin Bradbury of the Toronto Star — the Star prefers to use “commercial content.”

The two other panelists, Jill Borra of The Globe and Mail and Scott White of Postmedia, had their own ideas about what word they wanted to use, but when Shapiro suggested using “paid content,” all of the panelists nodded — somewhat reluctantly — in agreement.

Having not known very much about this part of the industry, I was caught off guard when my first introduction to it was characterized by unknown definitions and varying practices between each of the three publications. Albeit, this is one of the latest business strategies the journalism industry is playing with, so some growing pains are to be expected, but I couldn’t help but feel that deciding on an industry standard would be in everyone’s best interest, especially in these early stages.

The topic of paid material in the news world is ridden with controversy. The lack of proper labelling and its subtle integration into our news pages is not always made obvious to readers. News publications have a responsibility to their audiences to be transparent, but that’s contrasted against the pressing need to stay afloat in an industry that is often referred to as being in crisis.

What this new venture needs, and what the panelists from the J-Talk agreed on, is an industry standard where all paid content is presented in a clear and consistent way.

Newspapers follow many standards throughout the industry while still maintaining autonomy. Despite publications having different house styles, we all agree to adhere the bulk of our writing to the Canadian Press stylebook. We all agree to report on suicide a certain way. We all agree to use exclamation marks sparingly. Why can’t we all agree to label our paid content consistently?

Why can’t we all agree to label our paid content consistently?By not having a proper and consistent way of showing which parts are factual, news-driven journalism and which parts are not, it almost seems like we’re deceiving or tricking our audience. If we don’t obviously state what content are the results of outside influences, we’re not being forthright, and that’s a problem.

The Globe sometimes uses a “brought to you by” label for its paid content, while the National Post’s “sponsored by” means the same, but is arguably much clearer. Some publications like the Vancouver Sun and the Toronto Star will categorize the article as advertorials. These phrases essentially all have the same meaning, but not all readers are privy to their actual significance.

During the J-Talk question period, a freelance reporter asked the panelists how this subtle integration of paid content affects the trust our audiences have in the journalists writing these stories. She gave a short anecdote about waking up in the early hours of the morning with anxiety about whether or not she had treated one of her sources properly. She wondered how that devotion and passion for telling accurate, well-researched and comprehensive stories is being shared with these false, deceitful articles that are driven by economic powerhouses.

The panelists all tried their best to avoid answering the question, but in the end they all maintained that the two types of writing co-exist among their pages, rather than compete.

Good answer, I suppose.

I understand that fewer and fewer people want to pay for news. The industry is grasping at straws trying to find new revenue sources, and desperately trying to keep up with the latest technologies to stay relevant. I just hope that if we do continue down this road of using more paid content, we are honest with our readers, and deliver the material in a transparent manner.

There should be no confusion about what is real reporting and what is paid writing.

If we do find that paid content is really the saviour to our journalism woes, then we need to be smart about it. But if we’re not careful, as the event suggested, we all deserve to label ourselves as sellouts.

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