Some weeks, it's pretty easy to understand why people in the newspaper industry have a reputation for being heavy drinkers.
On Wednesday of this week, the Pacific Newspaper Group, the division of Postmedia that operates both the Vancouver Sun and The Province, announced layoffs were in the works. That was two days after my employer, The Globe and Mail, said it was looking for up to 60 people to take a voluntary separation agreement. Then on Thursday, the New York Times, whose paywall success has been a beacon of hope in a dark time, said its digital growth appeared to be stalling and print advertising was continuing to fall.
But if the industry is in turmoil, one group is doing fine: the companies that organize conferences on how to deal with the turmoil.
Last week, the San Francisco-based tech and business website GigaOM hosted its annual PaidContent conference in New York, where hundreds of people, including representatives from a number of Canadian outlets, paid more than a thousand dollars each in sometimes desperate hope of hearing about opportunities hidden within the chaos.
Given the general atmosphere, the day sometimes felt as if it had been curated by Pollyanna. During an onstage chat, the boyishly charming founder of tumblr, David Karp, who was 14 when the dotcom boom went bust, was asked if his company was profitable. "Not yet," he replied. Profitability is "not a metric that is particularly important to us."
Still, there are some who are apparently making gobs of money. But what they're doing makes plenty of their competitors simultaneously envious and queasy. That disquiet broke into the open during an afternoon panel on so-called "native advertising."
If most people don't know the term, they know its antecedent: advertorials. Native advertising is the latest iteration of journalism – or, rather, "content" – that takes its marching orders directly from advertisers. (The word "native" refers to the fact that it is created for a particular environment or media platform; Examples include Facebook's Sponsored Stories and Twitter's Promoted Tweets.)
Companies such as Buzzfeed, Atlantic Media, Forbes and the Huffington Post are happily integrating sponsored content into their websites, and treating it in much the same way as the journalism produced by their reporters and editors. The only difference is that stories usually carry a little tag at the top or bottom noting they have been sponsored by a particular brand.
For Lewis D'Vorkin, the chief product officer of Forbes Media, that is enough transparency. And as Felix Salmon, the Reuters journalist who moderated the panel, began asking about whether news organizations should worry about whether they're diminishing themselves by engaging in native advertising, Mr. D'Vorkin began to grimace. "Any editor at any magazine over the past 10 years has been confronted by the situation of a marketer saying, 'You know what? I would really like to have contextual content … for my ad,' and the editor goes out and he assigns content to be written for a magazine so the ad can be placed adjacent to it," he said sternly. The reader never knows.
But when a marketer buys Forbes's Brandvoice product, "They're doing the story they want to do: fully identified, fully transparent, no editor involved whatsoever. It's a bright shiny line."
Buzzfeed is the poster child for native advertising: a New York magazine piece last year noted that marketers pay about $100,000 a month to run campaigns for big brands such as Virgin Mobile and Pepsi, which translates into an estimated $40-million a year, equal to about 20 per cent New York Times Co.'s digital revenue last year. Jon Steinberg, Buzzfeed's president, said there's no confusion on the public's part about what native advertising is. "Everyone is writing … that people are confused – it's a bunch of journalists, who are selling banners, that like to say regular people are confused."
But even the ad industry is confused. One day after the conference, the online journal Digiday noted that most people within the industry still use the very different terms "native advertising," "branded content," "content marketing," "sponsored content" and "custom content" interchangeably. How likely, then, is it that regular people can keep track of what's going on?
It's laudable that many legacy news organizations, which have a reputation of being slow to innovate, are now bravely experimenting. But the third panelist, Kyle Monson, a former journalist who now serves as the chief creative officer for the marketing agency Knock Twice, framed the issue succinctly: "If we destroy the credibility of our media partners, that doesn't help anyone."
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article said companies including OpenFile.ca (which shut down last fall) integrated sponsored content into their websites and treated it in much the same way as the journalism produced by writers and editor. In fact, sponsored content did not appear as journalism on the site. This version has been corrected.