Sponsored content: are the lines being blurred?
As newspapers seek new ways of making money and organisations struggle to be heard, should consumers worry about the nature of their news?
Newspapers continue to suffer from the combined onslaught of declining ad revenues, falling circulation and technological change. In its annual report for 2012, the European Newspaper Publishers’ Association described it as “one of the most significant transformations in [the industry’s] history”.
The transformation will continue, but how it is navigated and what its final outcome will be remains to be seen.
In France, Google has created a Digital Publishing Innovation Fund.
In Germany, the Bundesrat looks set to approve a bill passed by the Bundestag that will allow publishers to start licensing content to search engines and news aggregators. Experimentation with concepts such as sponsored content is key in all of this.
Newspapers remain a primary mechanism for effecting some degree of accountability. Recent examples include the revelations of the Prism surveillance network by the Guardian and the Washington Post, the publication of the Anglo Irish Bank tapes by Independent News and Media and the breaking of the story last year, by The Irish Times, of the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar.
Impact of new media
New media, while facilitating a new level of transparency and having become an integral tool for journalists, also have their limitations. For all their strengths, they can also be inaccurate and hard to verify, as illustrated by the failed sleuthing efforts of users of the social news site Reddit during the Boston bombings.
There are signs the public is beginning to recognise this, as a recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford showed. Few overarching trends are discernible, but the indications are that more people are willing to pay for news, that they trust established news brands to provide that news accurately and that they place a premium on specialist analysis and commentary
Sponsored content is no panacea. If anything, it is likely to form only part of the answer to newspapers’ woes, alongside paywalls and other initiatives. As long as it is clearly labelled as such, the risk of readers being confused about what is independent editorial and what is paid-for content is minimal. As an exercise in moral hazard, it pales in comparison to the manner in which it is blurred on a daily basis in media empires around the world.
The consumer need not be disadvantaged, provided they read the label and provided the media managers are rigorous in identifying content that is “sponsored” from content that is generated through normal journalistic inquiry and coverage.