Monday, October 17, 2016

Corporations and Journalism: A working relationship?

by Eli Shively

Is paid content such a bad thing after all?
The ethical gold standard we journalism students are constantly being taught about in school certainly is a nice thought: The media serves as the watchdog of the world, constantly holding the rich and powerful accountable for their oft-slimy actions. However, almost a fifth of the way through the 21st century, the industry is taking a step back and examining pros and cons of sponsored content — something considered a cardinal sin to the old guard of the journalism field.

What is sponsored content?

According to the American Press Institute, sponsored content is presented in the form of all the other content an outlet produces, and influences brand perception and relationships as opposed to just telling the viewer to buy a product like a traditional advertisement does.

In short, sponsored looks and acts like a "real" part of the publication, looking and acting like it's supposed to be there. It acts as actual journalism, providing detailed information about a topic, however it also pushes a second agenda of displaying a certain brand in a positive light.

Examples of sponsored content

According to this excellent Pressboard article detailing ten well-executed examples of sponsored content, the sponsor can help determine what the content is about and how they're presented alongside it, but not the content itself.

The best example is a collaboration between Bud Light and the Vice subsidiary and electronic dance music blog Thump — Bud Light "presents" a section of the content, and Thump covers events that Bud Light sponsors, but there's no intersection between the content itself and the brand. None of the sentences read "Producer X is one of the hottest in the scene right now, his favorite beer is Bud Light. Bud Light is great."

How we can benefit from sponsored content

The most obvious benefit of letting corporations have a say in what we produce is it helps pay the bills. Because sponsored content goes beyond a simple ad or even advertorial in the way it improves perception of a certain brand, as well as how integral it is to the audience's experience, media outlets have no problem charging more for it. When it complements traditional advertising, sponsored content can help bring in a good deal of ad revenue.

It also can benefit the content itself — with the power of a recognizable corporation or brand behind them, many journalists can improve how their looks, sounds and feels by working with the corporation on the overall presentation of the piece. Sponsors can even help important pieces that wouldn't have gained traction otherwise be seen through to completion. 

These pieces don't aim to attack, investigate or hold anyone accountable in a traditional journalistic sense. They aim to expose and inform, more for entertainment and pleasure reading/viewing than anything else. That's not necessarily a bad thing to invest in given today's media landscape.

But wait...are we breaking the rules?

Well, yes, in a traditional sense corporations shouldn't have a say in what a publication decides to print (or post or upload). If you ask any professional that's been in the field a long time, they'll tell you to keep advertising and content separate, the way they were meant to be. 

However, in a digital-first world where banner ads are less likely to be clicked on than ever — sponsored content has proved a reliable way to maintain reader trust and journalistic integrity while allowing a brand to present itself in a more positive light. Although traditional watchdog journalism should aim for complete independence, expository pieces that serve to inform and entertain in equal capacity wouldn't be hurt at all by a sponsor.

Looking to the future

Sponsored content is currently trending upward in the journalism industry, whether the older professionals out there like it or not. There are a few drawbacks, of course, and in a perfect world it wouldn't be a necessity. However, in a world where it's tougher that ever to generate ad revenue online, it may be the way to go in the near future and beyond.

Simply put: we need them and they need us. Why not try and work together?

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