The Risks of Going Native

Advertising executives are leading journalism into risky territory, and it's not clear that they appreciate the dangers.

By Nathan Pippenger

The Nieman Journalism Lab has assembled a list of predictions for journalism in 2015 that will someday prove a useful resource for historians and anybody else attempting to reconstruct the industry’s mindset at this uncertain moment. It will not, I think, reflect well on many of us.

That’s because a startling number of the predictions are less about journalism and more about advertising. To be fair, funding sources are an understandable priority for an industry whose traditional economic base is in jeopardy, but there’s something unsettling about the strained excitement characterizing many of the entries. Reading paean after jargon-heavy paean to the dazzling new possibilities of advertising is like running into a friend who, in a last-ditch attempt to get out of financial trouble, has invested his remaining dollars in gold and is trying feebly to convince you (and himself) that it’s a good idea. At least, that’s the most charitable way of reading this assurance from a VP for advertising at Talking Points Memo:

But what’s most interesting to me about native — aside from the fact that it can’t be automated and scaled via networks like banners — is that it plays to the very heart of serious news organizations’ strengths. Quite simply, native advertising is advertising for people who read things. And I think that’s totally pivotal for journalism.

As Copyranter has described it, “native advertising” is “Advertising that advertises without advertising the advertiser.” Native ads look like any other piece of journalism on the page, except for an unobtrusive disclosure that the “content” in question—even if it mimics the typeset, tone, or other qualities of the publication—actually comes courtesy of an advertiser. In a perfect illustration, one of the top Google results for “native advertising” is an article from the Guardian titled “What is native advertising anyway?” The piece dubs it “the practice of using content to build trust and engagement with would-be customers” and proclaims: “Those publications that are pioneering native ads are usually good at making sure the quality of the content is high.” Observant readers will detect the suspiciously sunny tone and telltale advertising-babble—and sure enough, if you read to the end, you will discover the following about the author: “Tony Hallett is a director at Collective Content (UK). Copy on this page is provided by Outbrain, supporter of the digital content hub.” Even that disclosure falls far short of an unambiguous declaration that what you have just read, despite appearances to the contrary, was not produced by journalists at the Guardian. Now that’s what I call an impactful synergy of innovative partner content!

If the prediction from Talking Points Memo’s VP for advertising is correct, you can expect a lot more of this in 2015. And you can expect the pitch for it to take a high-minded route. Yes, this is advertising, but for smart readers, readers who need more than a simple slogan and picture before they’ll fork over their money. Native, we are reassured by TPM’s advertising VP, “replaces boxed ads featuring pictures and aphoristic slogans with long arguments and infographics.” And as these “native products” improve, they will “strip away the PR fluff that is inherent to a lot of current native” and “leverage data and facts to help advertisers communicate to news audiences in real, meaty, intelligence-respecting ways that no banner ad ever could.”

Advertisers are nothing if not savvy, and they know that journalists and highbrow audiences prize so-called “longform” work. The vocabulary surrounding longform journalism—“long arguments,” “data,” “facts,” “meaty,” “intelligence-respecting”—is marshaled here in support of advertisements that, by their nature, cannot mimic the content of a great longform piece, but only the structure. (As if the key thing about a 10,000-word New Yorker feature were its word count.) This is just misdirection: In the end, a long sales pitch with a “narrative” and infographics is still just a sales pitch. As I said, the charitable interpretation is that this path is taken out of desperation. The uncharitable interpretation is that advertisers have gleefully discovered that there’s lots of money in blurring the advertising-editorial distinction.

Most journalists—including at publications which have adopted native advertising—have enough integrity and intelligence to understand the risk they’re taking on, and they’re doing what they think is necessary to keep their publications alive. But economic pressures are shifting the balance of power decisively in favor of people who seem unburdened by such pesky inner tensions. That, at least, is the bracing forecast offered in another of Nieman’s predictions for 2015, which declares in its opening sentence: “The most robust conversations about the future of journalism will be led by thoughtful marketing professionals.”

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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