Mr. Editor, Bring down this wall!

mort_01There has always been, and I would argue, rightfully so, a line between content and advertising in newspaper media. The wall definitely exists, but the question is whether that wall is the Great Wall of China or a backyard picket fence.

Of late, newspapers have shifted a good bit, brought on by the difficult economic times we have been experiencing, to a role of curators of content rather than creators of content. In so many ways, newspaper editors select the best content available for their constituencies and present it in the very best ways. We do the search for our readers.

As we present content, we are still operating in a caste system of sorts. We tend to suggest that the best, most credible and trusted content comes from the newspaper’s own reporters, editors and writers. Then, we likely take the wires such as AP and value them next, followed by the syndicates and now the emerging UGC (user generated content). We blend that content to attempt to offer the best, most valuable sources for the best, most credible information. One source, we do not even consider in this mix is content from advertisers. AGC (Advertiser Generated Content) ranks a distant last in the mix of resources of information and when used, typically is required to wear the Scarlet Letter (Advertisement) all around it.

The worry has always been that information from an advertiser is tainted, biased and will somehow fool, even con, unsuspecting readers. I would argue otherwise:

1. Readers these days are pretty used to figuring out commercial messages especially since product placement and branded content are commonplace on all other media; and

2. Certain types of information might actually be preferred when it comes from a knowledgeable advertiser. Examples might include fashion information about emerging colors and styles coming from Bloomingdales might be seen as more expert than that coming from our own newsrooms, and home improvement tips might be more welcomed from Home Depot. The question is how do we present these sorts of information appropriately and what reactions do readers have to it?

NAA has commissioned prototypes to test with consumers. The complete report and prototypes will be available for download on April 7. Here are the results:

1. We learned that U.S. consumers do notice who wrote the stories they read at least some of the time (63% notice).

2.The originator of a story only makes a minor difference as to whether a consumer selects to read a story in a newspaper (40% said it makes a difference and 45% said it did not).

3. However, the originator of a story does make a difference as to the credibility/ trust and accuracy of the story (62% say it does).

4. Respondents overwhelmingly stated that they knew who was writing the stories on the prototype pages including the AGC stories (93%).

5. 85% of respondents agreed that there are times when stories written by advertisers are acceptable.

6. Respondents ranked stories coming from newspaper itself as more valuable than stories coming from newswires (second), syndicates (third), advertisers (fourth) and then other users (fifth), so it seems as if AGC (advertiser-generated content) is rated higher than UGC (user-generated content).

7. 58% of all respondents stated that stories written by advertisers are acceptable when the advertiser has specific expertise and when the advertiser is not making a “pitch” for their goods and services.

8. 79% of the consumers responding to this survey indicated that they could identify which stories on the protoype pages were written by advertisers.

9. 79% of those interviewed believed that the identification of AGC on the example pages were acceptable.

10. 84% of the respondents felt that this sort of identification was important. Remember that we differentiated by utilizing the bylines and the advertisers logo.

The test also included a question about and an example of product placement.

86% of respondents stated that product placement as shown did not bother them however, another 86% said it would not influence purchase decisions.

As with many creative, game-changing revenue ideas, they may not be for everyone. The bottom line is that unique new approaches to content and advertising are worth discussing and considering, especially today.

– Mort Goldstrom is the VP/Advertising for the Newspaper Association of America

It’s not news or advertising. They’re both information.

Journalists have focused on editorial content and eschewed advertising — until now. With the shuttering of newspapers, advertising seems a lot more important because the lack thereof is putting journalists out on the street — not to cover stories but to search for new jobs.

As Shirky says, we’re in a revolution, so everything must be put on the table, including the long-held belief in the separation of church and state (editorial and advertising).

Historically, it’s been an important distinction for journalists, but less so for endusers, as common sense and NAA’s research indicate. To find new ways to fund journalism we need to reconsider every strongly felt belief, especially any so dogmatic.

David Kordalski of The Cleveland Plain Dealer said it best: “It took (anti-communist) Nixon to go to (Communist) China.”

Likewise, it will take journalists to find the new separation of editorial and advertising that is appropriate to the digital age.

Below you’ll see a page from washingtonpost.com with a report on the new portable printer from Polaroid. Note that the ad notched into the story is a generic ad severed up by Google. The skyscraper ad to the right is for Cisco. Neither ad is related to Polaroid. Ironically, the news story about the new Polaroid product does not show the product - which is an important piece of news content that is missing from the news story. The story emphasizes the small size of the new product, but it is nowhere to seen.

polaroid_before

In the next example, you see what this page could have looked like, including a paid ad for Polaroid that promotes the product but also informs the public.

Is this paid ad journalism? No. Does it inform the public? Yes. This begs the question, “What is journalism?”

polaroid_after
 

Talking ‘Bout a Revolution

Clay Shirky says we’re in a time of revolution. It’s time for us to think different, act like patriots and do something revolutionary. In this instance, it means forgetting about newspaper’s separation between church and state (news and advertising) so that editorial is free to fix the revenue crisis.

Thomas Jefferson created the separation of church and state, but he also said this: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate any moment to prefer the latter.”