Much at stake: Native advertising destroys newspapers’ credibility


By Jack Ronald
The Commercial Review (Portland, Indiana)

Editor’s note – Jack Ronald, publisher of The Commercial Review (Portland), responds to a column in the May edition of The Indiana Pub­lisher written by an adver­tising fellow with the Donald W. Reynolds Jour­nalism Institute in Missouri.

Let’s start with the simplest premise, because that seems to be the one most often forgotten.

Any journalist has but one asset: His or her credibility.

A reporter might have the best sources imaginable.

A reporter might be able to write copy that sings.

But if a reporter is not trusted, none of that matters.

I first encountered the notion of the “paid article” in 1998 when I was teaching in the former Soviet republic of Moldova as a Fulbright Scholar.

Sure, I was well aware of “advertorial” content that worked its way into print.

And I’d seen plenty of puff pieces that were suspiciously placed adjacent to paid advertising about the same subject matter.

But those were, at the time, relative rarities in American journalism, more of a pesky embarrassment than anything else.

In Moldova in 1998, the paid article was more the rule than the exception.

A few newspapers made a modest effort, with little code symbols published with the paid content in small print, to let the reader know what was going on.

But for the most part, the whole process was opaque.

A reader picking up a newspaper in those days had no idea what was reportage, what was opinion, what was advertising, and what was advertising masquerading as journalism.

And it wasn’t just Moldova. A few years later I encountered exactly the same pattern in the republic of Georgia and in Armenia, and I encountered the same cynicism on the part of journalists.

Every excuse was mustered for selling one’s credibility.

Oh, a journalist would say, the reader understands. The reader knows this is a paid article even though it’s not immediately clear.

Or, he might argue at the same time, no one takes these things seriously.

Or, he might suggest in complete contradiction, the reader trusts me because of my reporting on serious issues and values my opinion on the topic I’m writing about, even if it’s something as trivial as a new brand of iced tea.

Sometimes all three answers came in a single interview.

Occasionally, reporters would draw a distinction.

It’s one thing, they’d say, to write a paid article promoting a commercial venture.

It’s another to take payment to write an article attacking someone’s political opponent bolstered by “evidence” provided by the guy who was paying you.

But the fact was, it was simply a hop, skip, and jump from one sort of journalistic prostitution to another.

Do one, and you might soon do the other.

Maybe it’s appropriate that I first encountered the paid article in Moldova, in the shadow of Romania, not all that far from Transylvania where Vlad the Impaler, also known as Dracula, once resided.

Because this foul concept simply will not die.

Now it rises from the crypt under the name of  “native advertising” and is trumpeted in the pages of The Indiana Publisher by someone on a fellowship at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute.

But, like Dracula, it’s still the same old monster. This time around, it seems even scarier.

Panicked by revenue losses, befuddled by the Internet, some of our brethren seem all too willing to put their credibility on the auction block as long as it keeps the lights on.

But is it journalism? I don’t think so.

Why do businesses – advertisers – want to buy “native advertising”?

The answer is obvious: If their message appears within what pretends to be a legitimate news article, they believe it will instantly seem more credible.

And that, ultimately, is the transaction.

Those who buy “native advertising” aren’t buying space or a spot on a website.

They’re purchasing the credibility of the journalist and the news outlet involved.

That’s true no matter how many buzz words you throw at it.

Back in Moldova in April for the first time in seven years, I was disheartened to see the paid article is alive and well.

I’d been doing a session on how to build credibility for a website. Little things like multiple source stories, transparency, bylines, and not using pseudonyms.

Then a reporter asked, “When I’m writing a paid article, should I use my own byline or use a pen name?”

I wanted to cry.

Dracula lives.

The bad news is he’s come to us in the United States and is posing as a savior for folks trying to make money on the Internet.

Where’s a strong wooden stake when you need one?

Jack Ronald is publisher of The Commercial Review in Portland, Indiana. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Moldova in 1998 and has worked on independent press development projects in Georgia, Armenia, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Myanmar on behalf of the International Center for Journalists, Freedom House, IREX, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and the U.S. government.