Where is the line between journalism and advertising … and why is it there? The question of how journalism and advertising relate is a hot one, and for people who have not worked in a newsroom, the distinction is not always obvious. But it is real — and not making it can undermine journalism entirely. I’ve seen it happen.
Journalism means that I am telling a story as clearly and accurately as I can. I ask questions, I talk with people, I grow conversations, I learn an area, and from these conversations it I shape a clear narrative. I have relationships with the people I write about, and with my readers, and with the people who support my writing. And I have responsabilities to them.
Advertising means that someone pays someone else to write a story about them. This is not journalism, and it is not what I do.
Journalism and advertising can work together — if the advertiser is buying an audience, not a story. Most journalism of any kind supports itself by offering content to their audience (subscription) or by building an audience who cares about their content and offering that audience to people who want to get the word out about what they do. Most media today draws revenue from both. What matters is that the journalism and the advtertising are separate, and everyone involved knows which is which.
Why does it matter? I have seen newsrooms try to blur this line — and they came near collapse. It happened clearly and quickly. And I can see the cause and effect.
I compare them with the success I’ve seen.
The newsrooms I have worked in have kept a clear line between editorial and advertising. The writers and editors did not know who was buying ads in the paper, and advertising did not influence their decisions about what to write, or how to write it. I have seen this model succeed in building revenue, and in keeping the newspaper’s relationships healthy with readers, with the people it covers and with potential advertisers.
The community journalism I have been involved in runs on a local network. The community values the publication in different ways. Readers support a publication because it gives them stories and information they want. Community organizations support it because it brings them to an audience they need to reach. Many of the people involved in the stories are readers or local organizations, or both. And so are many of the advertisers.
The publication becomes a hub for the community, and they support each other. By writing about people and events and creative and community organizations, the publication brings people together. They come to plays and concerts. They support museums and artists. And they meet each other. The magazine shows them the creative richness of their community, and the more they know about their community, the more they care — and the more they care, the more they value the publication. This kind of mutual trust can build in a positive cycle.
I saw this relationship in seven and a half years as editor of Berkshires Week, the weekly arts an community magazine in the Berkshire Eagle. The magazine often covered community and arts organizations and local businesses. Those places knew from experience that the magazine could help them. We had the kind of readers who would drive an hour and a half to hear Walt Whitman, or flock by the dozen to a jazz concert on a summer night, if we wrote about it.
Many of these local places also advertised in the magazine. And editorial and advertising were completely separate. I never knew who was advertising in a magazine until just before it went to press, weeks after I had planned, assigned and written the stories.
It worked. While my magazine ran on this model, it grew in size and brought in a steady profit. In my most productive time there, the magazine ran an average of 10 to 12 stories a week and up to 20 at the highest tide of the summer, when hundreds of plays and concerts and art shows fill the hills. We could not write about every event, but we could give most exposure in calendars and photos, and we could write about many organizations over the season. Many of our advertisers ran ads in many or all of the summer magazines.
And they knew they were buying an audience, not content. They supported the magazine as a whole, and they left me free to be the editor. They valued my work. I chose stories and shaped the writing, and the magazine had built the kind of audience who would act on what they read. I heard regularly from readers, actors, directors, curators that the stories we ran made a difference.
As the editor of this website and as a freelance writer, I am a building that audience in new places, and the same structures matter to me now, for the same reasons.
I have seen other models fail.
The absolute bedrock principle in the newsrooms where I’ve worked has always been that you never write something because involved someone pays you to write it. As a journalist I will write a story because a newspaper or an editor pays me to write it. But I will not write a story because an advertiser pays me to write it, or because someone in the story pays me to write it.
Why? Because no reader should trust that story.
No writer can write fairly in that set-up. No writer can think or report objectively on a story that can affect a financial relationship that will benefit or hurt the writer. A writer assigned to write about an advertiser would know going in that the story cannot question the advertiser too closely or show them in any negative light.
And so no reader can trust the writer. As a local creative entrepreneur once said to me, looking at a different regional publication, I know they’re pay-to-play, so why should I bother? The audience changes or walks away. And the audience are also potential advertisers. Revenue starts to drop. The size and quality of the content goes down. The relationships that were feeding the publication dry up. And the cycle I talked about above — reverses.
When readers believe someone is paying to influence the media, or when they are not sure who is paying to influence it, they begin to distrust it, and they have good reason. And remember, sources in stories, community organizations and advertisers are also readers. A chamber of commerce once told me years ago that their relationship with the local press had gotten so strained that they encouraged their members never to talk to a journalist — a complete gridlock, and a sign that that local paper was fast running out of options.
The media across the country has been struggling for years now to find a sustainable economic model, and five to ten years ago trends like “native advertising” became more and more visible. From my perspective, this is like “friendly fire”: “native advertising” is a euphemism for content that looks like editorial news and feature writing — and isn’t. It’s advertising that looks like journalism. And that chills me in the gut. Anywhere this kind of advertising runs, it means people now know they can pay a publication to write something. Even if such content says “advertisement” somewhere, usually in tiny letters, the form is meant to deceive.
As a reader, I don’t trust it. As a writer, I know I can’t write honestly that way, and I won’t write dishonestly. And as an editor I value the audience I want to build. From every perspective, I find this trend, this blurring of editorial and advertising, deeply frightening. This is not an abstract fear. I have seen very clearly how destructive this kind of thinking can be.
People in advertising see it too.
In the newsrooms where I have worked, no writer would write this way, and no editor would allow it. And this understanding went beyond the editorial staff. The ad sales representatives understood this too, and they defended it. They helped potential advertisers to understand it, so that advertisers knew what they were and weren’t buying, and the news staff helped readers to understand it, so that readers would trust the newspaper.
This ethical foundation shapes the whole culture in the newsroom and between the newsroom and the community. It builds trust and respect. And it drives revenue. Among the newsrooms I have known, the ones that ran this way thrived. The ones that did not lost their relationships with the community and came apart.
I’ve had some experience in dealing with people and newsrooms with a different culture, and I have seen what can happen when this understanding shifts. If advertisers believe they can buy content, they begin to push more aggressively. They put pressure on their ad reps, who try to pressure the editorial staff, and ad reps and reporters who used to work together are now pitted against each other. And the editorial staff lose value.
This is dangerous. It turns into a cycle. The quality of the publication drops. Advertisers and readers lose confidence in the publication. Readership and revenue fall. The community and the publication no longer support each other. At the Eagle, one of our most senior advertising staff told me she had seen this kind of downward spiral at other magazines: Revenue fell, so the magazines became smaller, and so they became harder to sell, and revenue fell … until they died away altogether.
Some advertisers in this climate also resist advertising unless the newspaper covers them. From the newspaper’s point of view, this can mean a severe financial loss. And from the advertisers’ it means the loss of an audience they value. If the advertisers who supported Berkshires Week had chosen to advertise only when we wrote about them, they and I would have lost the magazine.
This is why it matters that advertisers buy an audience, not a story.
If newspapers are in the business of attracting subscribers, the writers and the news are key, because they bring people in. If newspapers are in the business of delivering an audience to their advertisers, editorial and advertising can strike a balance — the audience matters, so the writers who create the audience matters, and the quality of the writing that draws in and keeps the audience matters.
But if the editorial staff become an extension of the advertising staff, then they become weaker, demoted, devalued — and the news is no longer news.