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Anneke Rautenbach: In Deference to the Headmaster

Is sponsored content the death of journalism?


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Image courtesy of Flickr user alex.ch

By Anneke Rautenbach

I had barely taken my first steps as a practicing journalist before I was twisted into writing advertorial copy. The year was 2011, the city was Cape Town, and South African media was in a terrible recession. It’s little wonder, then, that the handful of advertisements in the little student magazine I was editing were placed out of pity by the legal firms and insurance companies of family members and friends of friends, of no use to the student body we were serving. Pizza joints and photocopy shops were no longer buying what we were selling—not with the much-cheaper-to-free option of advertising online. I was an English major; I had never dealt with budgets and bills in any real way. Now, they were consuming me. Each publishing cycle was a hair-pulling affair, a great and demoralizing hamster-wheel of phone calls and rejections. The creative process of putting together a magazine took a backseat to scrambling for a realistic financial model; any joy involved was dwarfed by the perpetual, ulcer-inducing panic about money.

This was the price we paid for refusing—until then—to compromise our journalistic integrity by writing advertorial copy. But when the University of Cape Town’s Center for Film and Media Studies offered us a particularly handsome sum to interview the illustrious social justice photographer who would join their staff in the spring, the prize was simply too big, the cost of refusing too dire. I stoically agreed. I would write it myself, I said, fancying myself some kind of teary-eyed Fantine, shearing my hair and selling my body.

How lovely to be engaged in such an uncanny mimicry of what I love doing, while knowing that the money we so badly needed was in the bag.

I was being melodramatic of course. In fact, it was fantastic. The photographer lived in a crusty bohemian fishing village on Cape Town’s south coast. I took the train to meet him there, at a greasy spoon called the Gaslight Café. I drank mango juice through a straw as he told me about how his camera had taken him from the barricades of the anti-apartheid struggle, to the indigenous fishing communities of Kosi Bay, to the evangelical churches of Lesotho’s wind-rounded, hilly vistas. We spoke about the tension between art and documentary photography, about Guy Tillim and David Goldblatt and Ernest Cole—wonderful names, all. “Do you consider yourself a struggling photographer?” I asked, to which he responded, “I sometimes wear sandals.” We laughed. How lovely to be engaged in such an uncanny mimicry of what I love doing, while knowing that the money we so badly needed was in the bag. And with that I was reminded, a few hours in, of the reason I was there. I sheepishly shuffled my notes. “So, we should probably talk about the course you will be teaching,” I said to my chest, and it occurred to me that I might never do what he does because I was too busy writing copy for The Man.

Since then, this model has gained such sophistication and ubiquity that it’s difficult to imagine the kind of idealist that would actually be sad about it. Brand presence has become such a common and accepted part of our lives that you can’t even open an email without seeing that it was sent from someone’s iPhone. But it is sad, if only for the swathes of talented young journalists being usurped by marketing when they’ve barely had a chance to exercise their critical faculties. The distracting allure of a career in marketing for which you get to sort-of write beneath the veneer of a respected publication was crystallized in an episode of Lena Dunham’s Girls. After realizing that her colleagues at GQ’s advertorial department—former writers for N+1 and The New Yorker—have been working there for more than three years, Dunham’s character asks: “I mean you guys still write, like your own pieces right, your own spiritually fulfilling work?” “Yeah I’m thinking of some ideas,” says one, lamely. “I’m going to dive right back in as soon as I figure out my next move,” says another.

Perhaps sadder, however, is the compromised integrity of the publications placing this content. Advertorial blends into editorial more seamlessly than ever. It’s worth noting that the model I adopted at college has now morphed into a slyer iteration: Instead of articles that sneak a plug for the product in question (usually Q&As, “how-to’s” or listicles), companies have taken to paying for stand-alone articles (known as “native content”) that are only thematically related to their product, contain no mention of the sponsor, and adopt the style and editorial standards of the host publication, often tricking the reader into thinking they’re reading editorial content. Consider BuzzFeed’s “19 most ridiculous text fails,” sponsored by Virgin Mobile, or The Creators’ Project, VICE’s art and technology blog, which declares Intel a “founding partner.” Then there is the textbook example—The New York Times’ formidable “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work,” brought to you by Netflix and Orange Is The New Black—an in-depth investigation you could imagine running in the Times anyway, including multimedia bells-and-whistles so slick they would bring tears to the eyes of any impoverished reporter. “Would I consider running this content if it wasn’t sponsored?” is the litmus test for appropriate sponsored content, writes Jeff Sonderman for Poynter. “If the answer is yes, great. You’ve found a way to serve your audience, within your core mission, while also creating value for the sponsor.”

The theory—media’s magic bullet—goes something like this: Readers are happy because, whether they know it’s sponsored or not, they’re getting the kind of content they would read in the publication anyway, and advertisers are happy because after years of downloading popup-blockers, skipping ads and ignoring banners, readers are finally engaging with their brands again. They’re liking them; they’re even sharing them. (Imagine that! Sharing ads!) In fact, according to a study conducted by The New York Times and the web-analytics company, Chartbeat, readers are spending just as much time on these dolled-up adverts as they are on the work of actual journalists in the editorial department. The media landscape in the sponsored content age resembles something like a waterlogged soccer field: the players slide about and get so muddied by the same ubiquitous dirt that it’s impossible to tell which team they represent. The division becomes invisible, but also seems to matter less—as long as spectators are entertained.

It’s the Faustian bargain taken to its absurd conclusion: One minute you’re reading a thoughtful musing on the current state of the media machine, the next you’re biting straight into an advert—for advertisers.

In turn, publications are happy because, once again, they’re able to offer their advertisers value—and extract much-needed funds. Far from decrying it as a death knell, some have even hailed this as a “golden age” for publications. “There’s a stale joke in newspapers about reporters who transition to marketing, saying they ‘have gone to the Dark Side.’ Complete nonsense,” writes Marc Stewart in Coeur d’Alene, before continuing sunnily: “Many of you have probably read sponsored content before and didn’t realize it. If you’ve clicked on links on web pages to read about which former NFL players are now broke or the twelve tips on how to cook the perfect Thanksgiving dinner, you’ve read sponsored content.” Stewart’s apparent ignorance of this bad omen—the deception it exposes—might be the greatest irony of his article, “Sponsored content: A New Frontier for Newspapers,” were it not apparent, two thirds of the way down, that his article was in fact a call to purchase Coeur d’Alene’s sponsored content services. It’s the Faustian bargain taken to its absurd conclusion: One minute you’re reading a thoughtful musing on the current state of the media machine, the next you’re biting straight into an advert—for advertisers. I mean, good Lord, it’s a sponsored content hall of mirrors!

According to a 2014 study by Contently, two thirds of 542 surveyed readers between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five said they have felt deceived upon realizing that an article or video was sponsored, 54 percent said they don’t trust sponsored content and 59 percent said they feel a news site loses credibility when it runs sponsored content. But Contently reckons it’s only a matter of getting the model right: publications make a mistake when they don’t clearly label sponsored content as such. The New York Times is a good example of a publication that’s offsetting its sponsored content with transparency. Its advertorial department, T Brand Studio, has a totally different URL to its editorial website, one that begins with “paidpost.nytimes.com.” The article is crowned by the brand’s logo, and ends with the disclaimer: “The news and editorial staffs of The New York Times had no role in this post’s preparation.”

Theoretically, when sponsored content is in a labeled box, far away from editorial, the risk of contagion is reduced—while its benefits flow freely. So let’s, for a moment, humor the optimists, and ask whether this model might, in fact, liberate our newsrooms. With greater revenue comes greater freedom and flexibility, after all. It allows for greater budgets to pay staff writers and freelancers. The milk and honey of sponsored content also means publications are less dependent on readers’ wallets, which means they are less dependent on the tastes of their lowest common denominator. Marginal or niche stories can afford to get more airtime. Money means freedom, right?

But contrary to a flashy full-page ad, sponsored content is a mirage, a ghost: it enters and emulates the voice of its host to the extent that readers don’t notice the difference and editors are not only complicit in the deception, but dependent on sustaining the illusion.

But none of it solves the problem of conflicts of interest. It’s difficult to imagine running an article sponsored by Walmart next to anything remotely critical of major retail corporations, not to mention Walmart itself. Or a piece highlighting the impact of financial deregulation on lower-income citizens on the same day as a piece sponsored by Citigroup. And this brings to light the most disturbing implication of sponsored content: that the further deepening of advertiser control may serve as a form of insurance against staunch critique. Sure, this dilemma might be nothing new. Perhaps the scenarios above don’t differ greatly from a newspaper being persuaded not to investigate the blood diamond trade of the luxury jeweler buying half of its advertising space each year. But contrary to a flashy full-page ad, sponsored content is a mirage, a ghost: it enters and emulates the voice of its host to the extent that readers don’t notice the difference and editors are not only complicit in the deception, but dependent on sustaining the illusion. That it is so lucrative only gives us more reason to distrust it: A study of the politics of any oil-rich nation outside Scandinavia will prove that abundance begets desperation. We live beyond our means, always.

The kitchen counters of GIRLS’s fake GQ offices are lined with bagels and lox, donuts and Sun Chips (suspiciously mentioned several times.) Its refrigerator is stocked full of Vitamin Water and energy drinks. “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” said Virginia Woolf, who famously considered the effects of poverty on the imagination. The kind of financial strain my college magazine experienced was its own kind of corset. But just as GQ’s free snacks serve as a metaphor for the perks of the marketing job, one that lulls its employees into submission and distracts them from their more radical writing careers, the financial bounty of sponsored content will further neuter publications. “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters,” Woolf also wrote, before continuing: “But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its color, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.”

Anneke Rautenbach is a South African journalist and editor based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York Magazine’s Bedford+Bowery, and South Africa’s The Sunday Times. You can follow her at @annerauties.

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