Is it time for the New York Times to embrace sponsored stories?

As news publishers confront a troubled online ad market, many of them are turning to “native advertising” which lets marketers create content that resembles a website’s natural content. The New York Times (s nyt) is resisting the trend but sooner or later it may have to give in — perhaps one day allowing select marketers to pay to insert stories on the Times website.

There are obvious ethical issues here but, before jumping in, let’s take a moment to explore just how the practice works. The idea of native advertising, which is gaining traction across the media landscape, is based on the idea that readers are more likely to engage with ad content that resembles other content on the site — rather than intrusive banner or pop-up ads.

The viral news site BuzzFeed is a loud proponent of the concept, even offering an in-house ad team to help brands create appealing content. For example, BuzzFeed recently published a “story” by a toy maker called  “18 of your favorite toys from the ’90’s.

Native advertising is also being used by premium publishers like Forbes and the Atlantic, and by Twitter which sells “sponsored tweets” that look like other content in a user’s feed. Investors, too, are hailing the practice. Respected VC Fred Wilson last week told a large audience that ads should come in the same “atomic unit” as the native content that appears on a site.

Well, what about the New York Times? Is it time for the Grey Lady to embrace sponsored stories too? It’s worth noting that, which is owned by the NYT Co, officially launched “Insights,” where marketers pay $299 for their stories to appear, clearly delineated. It looks like this, with the real news story on the left and the marketers’ stories on the right:

So could the New York Times take up native advertising too? If it did, it would have to find partners who could write stories that Times readers would like to consume; such candidates might include the Clinton Foundation or green car maker Tesla. For now, however, this is unlikely to come to pass.

“It is critically important to us that advertising can be clearly distinguished from editorial and news content by our readers. For that reason, we tend not to accept native advertising,” said New York Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy by email. While the site and the print paper have dabbled in “advertorial” in the past, the company has never integrated ads to the degree of BuzzFeed.

Unfortunately, the Times may not always have this luxury of being so selective. The company’s revenues are shrinking fast as digital subscriptions are not making up for lost advertising dollars. This situation will only get worse as more readers consume the Times on mobile devices where banner ads don’t work at all (but native advertising does). Before long, economic reality may drive the Times to follow BuzzFeed’s example.

As a fan of the New York Times, I would be glad if the paper needed no advertising at all. But, as a realist, I fear cost-cutting will soon pose a greater danger to the paper’s greatness than native advertising.

(Image by Kobby Dagan via Shutterstock)