Balancing readers and advertisers

Published 26.11.2018 00:00
Updated 26.11.2018 00:05

With the debate on hidden advertisements and letting money change hands to determine the newsworthiness of a story going full steam ahead, it is important to remember the guidelines surrounding paid content.

First, let's look at how advertorial content works in newspapers when it is not in its most obvious form. For that, the Guardian has a good method of categorizing different aspects of it so let's roll with that.

The first one deals with funding. This type of content is funded completely or partially by a third party. It can be by a related brand or organization, and the editorial board has the final say on the matter. The party providing the funding has the power to make suggestions to the editor involved about the content, but those suggestions are not binding. The editor can disregard them.

Social responsibility projects are also in this category regardless of their mission and righteousness. If the article is funded by an NGO, it also belongs to this pile.

These types of articles also include the phrase "supported by" to give readers an accurate representation of its process. They can make their own conclusions about the article with that information.

The second type veers more closely to the advertisement side of the scale. These are more or less controlled by the third party, and they are legally considered as advertisements. According to the content funding information, the Guardian uses a separate staff for this purpose. While newspapers with small staffs may not have this luxury, media companies should incorporate a separate staff under the aegis of their advertisement departments to avoid conflicts of interests down the line. After all, it is not unfeasible for a journalist to report on a brand they previously worked with on an advertorial. Not to mention that is can harm the credibility of editors.

This is essentially paid content with the direction of third parties and little input from the publisher. And they are marked accordingly for readers.

The final category is firmly in the camp of advertisement. They are from and by third parties. The Guardian marks them as "advertiser content." They are similarly indicated by many other newspapers, and there is not much to debate here.

Comparing these three categories of advertorial content with each other and the current debate going on in the Turkish media about hidden advertisements, there are several glaring points that jump right out.

They are all marked accordingly in order not to mislead readers. It provides them the context necessary for the content they are consuming. It is not surprising that reader's reaction to a brand being praised to high heavens in a news article would be a lot different if the article in question was marked as paid content after all.

The second important point is that the two latter categories have nothing to do with the editorial staff of the newspaper.

The current debate about allegations is that if they are true, they are completely indefensible due to failing to mark the content in question accurately. It is a huge breach of trust and can result in a massive loss of credibility.

Another significant thing to highlight is that the current debate is also about newsworthiness and letting money changing hands decide that. The first category mentioned above is the only one that can be considered as a bit of a gray area. For such a procedure to work without casting doubt on the integrity of a newspaper, there needs to be a process that is beyond reproach with editorial independence from third parties and extensive scrutiny enforcing that independence. The vetting process by the editorial board is also essential when it comes to deciding what is newsworthy and what is not.

There are two types of customers for newspapers. You sell your content to readers – who are customers. Advertisers are customers to whom you sell the attention of your readers. Losing that balance costs you the first one. Losing the first one costs you the second. I'll leave you to decide which matters more at the end of the day.

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