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‘Native’ advertising pays the piper but may not call the tune

Who will pay the bills for quality journalism? That's the question news groups around the world are asking themselves with growing anxiety.

Some combination of advertising income and cover price has sustained private, commercial media for many years, whereas public broadcasters have been able to rely on mechanisms such as licence fees or direct government subsidies. Philanthropic donors sometimes support reporting.

But established media organisations are under considerable economic pressure as new and social media give audiences new, convenient and generally free options to stay up to date. The income from print advertising has plummeted, and the advertising income generated online has not made up the difference.

Media organisations, particularly in print, have scrambled for new ideas to earn income. They range from paywalls, forcing online readers to pay for access to articles, to selling data on readers to marketers wanting to target their messages more precisely.

Online innovation
There is nothing particularly objectionable about paywalls. But this second option seems really appalling. I have quite enough spam in my life, thank you very much, and don't like the idea of my profile being sold off to marketers.

One innovation being tested to boost online income is "native" advertising, which integrates sponsored stories into the general run of editorial material. The new Mail & Guardian leadership sees potential in the idea, though it's not yet clear how big that potential is. The idea has sparked fierce debate: many members of editorial teams are concerned about its implications.

It's not hard to see why marketers would like the idea. The problem with display advertising is that readers are thoroughly inured to it. The great advantage of online adverts being trumpeted a little while ago was that you could measure their success precisely by seeing how often people clicked through the advert to get more information.

And so you can. The evidence emerged clearly: people very rarely click through. Those online adverts are not very effective at all.

Native advertising, by contrast, offers a story that should match readers' interest, raising the likelihood that they will give it some attention. It also allows the marketer to borrow some of the credibility that traditionally attaches to journalism.

The more the article looks like journalism, the more likely it is that readers will take it seriously.

New – serious – deals
The desire to blur the line between advertising and journalism is not new: a wide range of tricks has been used for many years to do so. This is where the danger lies. Journalistic credibility hinges on readers' trust that our writing does not serve a hidden agenda, whether political, business or any other.

And yet native advertising is being pursued by many respected ­international media, from the New York Times to the United Kingdom's Guardian. The latter recently announced a new unit called Guardian Labs, whose first project will be a series of articles on sustainable lifestyles sponsored by Unilever. The deal will be worth more than £1-million, and the new unit has a staff of 133, that's how serious it is.

The American Press Institute has identified several models being tried out: some media have developed editorial projects and then sought underwriting sponsorship for them, without the sponsor having any input into content; some allow sponsors space to publish their own content, without the news organisation having any input; but the most widespread approach has the sponsor and news organisation collaborating on developing editorial ideas.

In some cases, the results have demonstrated the danger. The example of the Atlantic magazine's publication of a story praising the Church of Scientology ­– removed after an outcry – has often been cited.

For some commentators, such as my colleague Anton Harber at the University of the Witwatersrand's journalism school, the purpose of native advertising is purely to deceive. If so, journalists should have no truck with it. But the question is whether native advertising clearly identified as such – in effect, reducing its "nativeness" – is possible.

The M&G's native advertising policy
The M&G has been developing a policy for some months now, and editor-in-chief Chris Roper is clear on several points: first, material of this kind must always be identifiable. If the paper goes in the direction of native advertising, this is not negotiable. It can't be a question of small labels that are easy to miss, either; the distinction must be very clear.

Another element of the developing policy is that this will happen only online, that it may not be used for directly singing the praises of a product or company, and that it will be produced by a specialist team rather than the main newsroom.

I believe a critical element must be to state clearly that topics and sponsors out to defend controversial positions will never be accommodated. You simply can't have political parties using the format to advertise their positions, or controversial oil companies defending themselves.

This is a grey area that will take skillful editorial work to manage. Who will be responsible for the tough calls? Systems need to be put in place to make sure that projects are discussed early enough with senior editors to ensure they don't go in the wrong direction. Other concerns include the way stories of this kind will play on social media, the use of bylines, the handling of potentially critical comments online, and others.

Few journalists love the idea of native advertising, but they may learn to live with it if the boundaries are clearly drawn.

Ultimately, two truths need to be accepted: first, the money for journalism has to come from somewhere; second, credibility is not only important for individuals, it is also commercially important.

Native advertising is an innovation that will test newspapers' ability to balance the two.

The Mail & Guardian's ombud provides an independent view of the paper's journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact me at [email protected]. You can also phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message

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