Church and State: Is There a Downside to Native Content?

Right out of grad school, I went to work in the pulp and paper industry. It was 2008 and the effects of the financial crisis had taken hold. Producers were declaring bankruptcy left and right. Banks needed cash to keep themselves afloat, even if it meant selling the assets of these companies for pennies on the dollar.
publishers are welcoming native
These paper companies had been losing money for years – not because of any inefficiencies, and not even because of ferocious competition from emerging markets. It was because their number one client (the newspaper industry) was printing fewer and fewer copies every month as their readers went online.

In the 7 years since then much has changed: bailouts repaid, growth (almost) restored and many former journalists are now working with digital outlets of one kind or another, but still nobody has found a way to restore the profitability these newspaper giants once enjoyed. For the most part, journalists and media companies have a pretty strong sense of integrity. But, much like the companies who supply their paper, survival is at times a struggle.

Necessity being the mother of invention, we have begun to see an explosion of “native content” being put on media sites. You may have seen John Oliver call this disguising advertising as journalism on his show a while back. Meanwhile, publishers are welcoming native as not just a means to an end, but a way to grow their revenues and potentially restore their impressive profitability.



But not everyone sees pure doom and gloom for the state of online journalism. Katie Hawkins-Gaar of the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based media education and strategy organization devoted to excellence in journalism, has a more positive view.

“It makes sense to experiment with native content. We’re all trying to figure out how to make journalism profitable, and native content is one form of advertising worth exploring,” she says, adding “In some cases, native ads could mislead users, especially on mobile, when people are quickly scrolling through content. Clearly labeling this sort of content as ‘sponsored’ is key. For articles, I suggest including a label at the top and bottom of posts.”

It’s difficult to generalize if this kind of marketing is ethical in journalism because the standards vary greatly at this point from one media outlet to the next. Some see no problem with it at all, while others have guidelines in place. Therefore, any damage to the credibility of a news organization caused by native ads varies in accordance with its own policies.

The news business is going through a time of massive and rapid change, and the same can be said of marketing. It feels like the wild west right now, but someday we may look back on this as a golden age, as some sort of regulation or standardization is expected to be applied down the road. Hawkins-Gaar believes that certain standards on content and labeling are crucial not just for media, but for the advertiser as well.

“Since native is a relatively new form of advertisement, it’s hugely important for this kind of content to go through a standards review process. The review process shouldn’t kill creativity and the willingness to experiment, of course, but it should help ensure that you’re maintaining quality and transparency. You don’t want to lose your audience’s trust.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is that creatives are still trying to find new and innovative ways to bring their clients’ message to the consumer. That won’t stop anytime soon, and native ads likely won’t be the last form of advertising that questions the separation of church and state.