Is that story journalism or advertising?: Sponsored content's blurry status

By Laura Davison

Journalists have plenty of new things to tackle these days: Facebook Graph, Quora’s new blogging platform and keeping their online presence looking as spiffy as the New Republic’s.

And the never-ending to do list keeps growing: what’s the deal with sponsored content? Or you might have heard it referred to as one of its many other names— content marketing, native advertising or paid content. As Mashable outlines, the jury’s still out on what term the industry will adopt.

No matter the name, the idea is brands, instead of placing display ads online, create multimedia content with the help of the an editorial member of a news organization. This content has the look and feel of the other content on the site, except for some designation marking it as sponsored. News organizations get paid to create this content and advertisers have a more dynamic platform to share their brand.

Financially, it looks like a win for both. The desire for native advertising is being driven by two forces: the need for additional sources of revenue and the way users interact with advertising online has changed greatly in the past decade. Online banner advertising had a click-through rate of 9 percent in 2000, according to Mashable. Last year it was 0.2 percent. Zero point two. When you’re getting paid by the click, that just doesn’t cut it.
A screenshot of the Scientology sponsored post in the Atlantic

It’s no surprise that news organizations have looked to sponsored content, which is more engaging and less advertisement-y, as a potential source of revenue. Big outlets like NBC Digital, Forbes, Buzzfeed and most recently, the Atlantic, are all among organizations experimenting with it.

But some journalists have ethical concerns about content that looks so similar to the journalism also on the site. Earlier this month, the Atlantic ran a sponsored post for the Church of Scientology. Readers were confused and upset by the content, which was a piece praising Scientology’s recent accomplishments. Users were allowed to comment and negative ads were suppressed. It’s since been taken down, but you can still see a pdf of the post. Only a small yellow tab at the beginning of the story noted that it was an advertorial. The Atlantic admitted that, “They screwed up.”

Letters Home: Chris Mycoskie

The following letter was submitted Aug. 20, 2012

Chris Mycoskie, right, is the Southland Conference's
assistant commissioner for television and electronic
media. He attended the University of Missouri in the
late 1990s.
Dear Young Tigers,

I’m honestly surprised that I’ve been asked to participate in this letters home project. First of all, I’m not a graduate of the University of Missouri, much less the Missouri School of Journalism. I’ve been told, though, that I’m an honorary member of the Mizzou Mafia, and I’m proud to call myself a Tiger.

One of the main reasons I chose Missouri was the existence of KOMU. While some
people told me I’d need to wait until my junior year (after being accepted into the
broadcast sequence) to do anything there, I didn’t listen. I drove out to the building
on Highway 63 during my first week on campus and wound up being there nearly
every day after that until I left school.