Grub Street’s signposts

TUESDAY COMMENTARY

Hands up if you have started to read a story in print or online and only after you have absorbed its main points did you see an acknowledgement, in the finest of fine print, that it was paid content.

Or worse, you read it right through and found, at the end, an obscure fiddly light face font disclosure that it was ‘published in conjunction with…’

You have, of course, been reading advertisements that are deliberately made to look and read like pieces of journalism. They are in this form because editorial space is seen as more credible than the surrounding advertising. It is a form of land grab.

Commercial content started out as ‘reader ads’  that used non-editorial fonts and was clearly labeled ‘Advertisement’ (when I was editor of the New Zealand Herald, I required the label to be placed in capitals at top centre). Time passed and that irksome word was dropped (perhaps because it was too accurate a label),  to be replaced by the friendlier ‘Advertorial’ and the design of the material edged ever closer to that of genuine editorial content. Finally, as the fortunes of news media companies declined and the search for revenue became more desperate, we entered the present era of look-alike placements and disclosure statements that run the gamut from ‘sponsored content’ and ‘published in conjunction with…’ to the particularly obscure ‘powered by…’.

There seems to be a contest to find the most obfuscating sobriquet and the most ingenious way of complying with the Advertising Standards Authority’s Guidance Note on Identification of Advertisements without actually giving the game away.

The ‘best’ of these pieces are structured in such a way that they register the brand proposition subtly but effectively almost before you know it. So, if you stop reading, the goal has already been achieved.

The need for news media to generate revenue is understandable and ‘sponsored content’ is one way of raising much-needed cash. However, it is acceptable only if there is absolute transparency over the use of the device and readers are in no doubt – from the outset – that they are reading an advertisement.

Even if the material is written by a journalist (and the term is used here to denote professional training rather than current employment) and the publication has some nominal control over content, the piper is still playing the payer’s tune. And even if it quacks like a duck, it’s not editorial content.

The ASA’s guidance note should satisfy the need for absolute transparency and it says all the right things. However, it is clear that following the letter of that guidance is not the same as following its spirit.

Two things prompted these comments. The first was the following piece of paid content in the New Zealand Herald last Friday. I was well into the story before I glanced skyward and saw the 12-point sans serif light ‘disclosure’. I have added the red circle to avoid the possibility that you may still miss it.

sponsored content

I wondered how many people had seen that ‘sponsored content’ message at all. At best, it paid lip service to the guidance. Contrast it to this paid content in the New Zealand Listener. I found it interesting but I knew before I went beyond the headline that it was selling a financial service.

listener paid content

The second trigger that prompted my attention was a report by Australia’s media watchdog, the Australian Communications and Media Authority. One of its remits is the regulation of broadcasting content and last week it issued a report on impartiality and commercial influence in broadcast news. It found 58 per cent of Australians believe there is more commercial influence in Australian news today than three years ago. Many commented on the need for transparency, suggesting audiences should be able to readily distinguish commercial content from reporting.

It would be inappropriate to extend that finding to New Zealand broadcasters. The two markets are not the same. However, it is a useful pointer to the possible impact that a blurring of the lines can have. And that impact is on trustworthiness.

The labelling of paid content needs to be abundantly clear and cute ways of disguising its provenance need to stop.

It took two centuries for journalists to lose the reek of Grub Street’s paid hacks or what Samuel Johnson described as  “a man without virtue who writes lies at home for his own profit”. I can’t resist an even more telling (anonymous) description recalled by Bob Clarke in From Grub Street to Fleet Street: “dastardly mongrel insects, scribbling incendiaries, starveling savages, human shaped tygers, senseless yelping curs…”. Clearly now is not the time re-embrace Grub Street’s ‘pen for hire’ reputation.

There is abundant evidence that paid content may be less ‘profitable’ than imagined. Yes, it might bring in a few dollars but at what cost?

Five years ago, the U.S. online content creation company, Contently, conducted a survey on consumer reaction to what it called ‘native advertising’ – articles on a publisher’s site that are paid for and/or written by a brand. That survey found that almost half felt deceived upon realising that an article or video was sponsored by a brand, and almost two-thirds believed a news site lost credibility if it published sponsored content from a brand.

The only way for media organisations to safely continue to carry ‘editorialised’ advertising that turns the product or service into an interesting story (told like news or a news feature) is to acknowledge to readers upfront that it is still an advertisement. This transparency is vital because the same Contently survey found that on nearly every publication it tested, consumers tended to identify native advertising as an article, not an advertisement. Then a high percentage felt duped.

Trust in journalism and the organisations for which they work is a far more valuable commodity than what may well prove to be counterfeit dollar bills.

Rescued from the jaws of death

The Australian reported yesterday that Bauer Media is no longer a takeover target for private equity company Mercury Capital. This is welcome news.

I liked Bauer ANZ chief executive Brendon Hill’s comment when he confirmed to The Australian that Mercury had walked away from the bid: “It’s nice to be looked at”. Suitably dismissive.

Private equity companies have been the kiss of death for media enterprises. They know nothing about the business, care nothing for the higher callings that are embodied in the practice of journalism, and get out after they’ve sucked the shallow well dry.

Bauer is still battling to take over Seven’s Pacific Magazines and, frankly, they would make a better fist of it than the current owner, Seven Network. They have shown – with the NZ Woman’s Weekly and Woman’s Day in NZ, for instance – that they can segment the market to give each consumer title its own appeal and, no doubt, they would aim to do the same with New Idea.

Vale Gordon McLauchlan

Gordon McLauchlan 

Gordon McLauchlan would cringe at being described as one of New Zealand’s cultural icons, but he would be happy to be described as a shrewd observer of New Zealand culture. Two of his many books – “The Passionless People” and “Passionless People Revisited” – indisputably earned him that title. And, at the risk of postumously annoying him, he was a cultural icon, too.

The frontispiece to his memoir “A Life’s Sentences” described him as a feature writer, magazine editor, television presenter, radio broadcaster, social commentator, historian, columnist and public relations consultant. He was all of those things and walked in each field with skill and confidence. In all of his endeavours he never lost sight of the fact that above all he was a journalist.

He was also my friend.

Gordon McLauchlan ONZM died in Auckland on Sunday shortly after his 89th birthday.

Vale Gordon.

 

 

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