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article imageEditors discuss native advertising: will it save journalism? Special

By Michael Thomas     Oct 3, 2014 in Business
Toronto - Is native advertising the saviour of the journalism industry? Or are newsrooms selling out as paid-for editorial content becomes harder to distinguish from independent journalism?
This was the topic of the night at the Canadian Journalism Foundation's first fall season talk. Ivor Shapiro, chair of Ryerson's Journalism school, moderated a discussion featuring Jill Borra (executive editor, the Globe & Mail), Cathrin Bradbury (executive director of content, Star Media Group) and Scott White (vice-president of content strategy and business development, Postmedia).
By the end of the night, it was clear that native advertising (or branded content, custom content, sponsored content, or numerous other names) is not clearly one or the other.
The panel opened with a few minutes of John Oliver's widely-seen takedown of native advertising, and when asked if native advertising is responsible for decaying standards in journalism, White said: "If we want independent journalism, we need to find a way to pay for it."
One of the recurring themes throughout the night was how much separation of church and state (editorial and business sides of a newsroom) there will continue to be as native advertising becomes more poignant. Borra, Bradbury and White all mentioned that their journalists will never end up writing branded content, however the major problem now seems to be getting audiences to recognize what is and isn't sponsored.
As Bradbury explained, advertisers are learning more and more that sponsored content needs to have high standards, much like a piece of journalism. Therein lies the difficulty: if a native ad is designed to mimic an actual piece of independent journalism, how will audiences be able to tell the difference? Shapiro mentioned that during his tenure as editor of Chatelaine, he was "disturbed" at how few readers of the magazine could tell what is and isn't sponsored writing.
All three panelists acknowledged that the major difficulty lies in labeling. Borra acknowledged that at the Globe, labelling standards have been inconsistent from the way sponsored content looks in newspapers versus online — which is why, in the next week or so, the Globe will simply call all variations of paid-for writing "sponsored content." White said it would be fantastic if there was an industry standard on how branded content should be labelled.
After a brief discussion, the audience asked questions, and some were worried about a saturation point — in other words, would too many native ads negate their effect altogether, much like banner ads have gone the way of the dodo. White acknowledged that too many native ads might make audiences "blind" to them, but Bradbury said that newspapers aren't "in the land of plenty" yet, as no paper has enough interested advertisers that they can pick and choose who goes where.
One question from the audience seemed to catch all panelists off-guard: are any of them doing anything truly innovative, or disruptive? None of them could provide an easy answer, which made it clear that, much like paywalls, native ads aren't necessarily going to save newsrooms, but they're all the organizations have right now.
More about Canadian journalism foundation, cjf, native advertising, branded content, Journalism