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

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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)

11 Responses to “Is it time for the New York Times to embrace sponsored stories?”

  1. I am a Consumer Protection Attorney who is ANTI-native advertising (aka: “Scam-Spam”). The Consumer of News (the public) is fooled by Scam-Spam and duped into thing a ‘supposedly’ safe news source is advising its reader. Consumers of News must get well delineated information with clear sponsorship of the posting. But equally, everyone should have a Voice in the marketplace of ideas.

    The internet is the best suited forum holding the potential for true Jeffersonian Democracy, and unlike the Citizens United case, the corps and groups would not be treated equally to living people. Corps & Groups would actually have to pay to post (again with clearly marked separation), BUT the People’s voice must be free to post. All of the above must be transparent as to the author’s verifiable information.

    Look, we know who the NYT or WSJ is and we know we know their political leanings. There is no ambush of bias or journalistic deceit, on the contrary, you may disagree with their political leanings, but the bias is not hidden. What we need is a multiplicity of ideas (not a confined restriction). This is the Information Age,so the key is no longer ‘the flow’ of information once restrained by paper, ink & delivery, we now have ideal ‘flow’ (possibly even information overload).

    What we need as Consumers of the News is: (1) selection clarity and (2) source transparency. So give us better menus and cool ways to access subtopics, but also let us roll through any self-discovery that pleases us. If the NYT and WSJ wants to be relevant, try relating to the only audience you have left. We are online and need you to think bigger to keep pace with us.

  2. Is this really all that new? For years newspapers have had I their print editions. “Special sections” on cars, education, etc. these all contained native advertising… And labeled as such.

  3. Are you sure that Buzzfeed article linked is a “sponsored story?” Is Buzzfeed’s “innovation” in this space just to eliminate the clear denoting of commercials so that readers never know what they’re getting?

    All I see is “Buzzfeed Partner.” Couldn’t anyone be a Buzzfeed Partner?

    • BuzzFeed appears to like the term “Featured Partner.” They use this term along with the sponsor’s logo and a different colored story box to designate this type of content on the homepage. There’s an example today of “27 cats that just can’t handle it” by “Feature Partner” Virgin Mobile. But, yes, this still doesn’t denote sponsored content as clearly as other publications.

  4. Aaron Brown

    Yes it’s high time for ‘The Paper of Record’, which has already made the decision to devote far too much of its resources to catering to the elite far too well-heeled class of its readership, which appeals to the few advertisers it has left, with reams of stories about dogs, and vacation destinations. So now they can jettison the last semblance of credibility, and sell their sole entirely to corporate interests, in order to keep a dying paper alive for a few more years before it finally folds. Yes please turn yourself into a two dollar whore, if nothing else for the sake of the few people still getting pensions from your pension fund

    As a long-time subscriber, I stopped paying for the New York Times six years ago, specifically because the independent contractors they hired to deliver the paper couldn’t do their job consistently, and the New York Times still expected me to pay for my subscription, even when they were delivering my paper to a former address in another state. I won’t do business with people who can’t keep up their end. I still read it of course, but I’ll never pay again. And it doesn’t even matter to the times because I’m not part of the demographic that their advertisers want to appeal to, so I’m irrelevant, and that’s a huge part of their problem.

    A part of me is sad, but a more important part of me Has a great deal of contempt for a paper I had nothing but respect for in times gone by.

    • “Bored” — your comment is a bit incendiary but you may have hit on something. Whatever its claims to objectivity, the NYT is assuredly a left-leaning, Democratic paper in the same way the WSJ is Republican. And you’re right that the op-ed’s and guest voices in the paper edition are typically an extension of this — is this so different from native advertising?

      • Jeff, as a media professional, I strongly disagree with the sentiment that either the Times is liberal leaning or that the Journal is “Republican.” Making theses accusations displays a limited knowledge of journalism, so let me teach you a little lesson in readership that a writer for PaidContent might not understand. The readership of the New York Times are urban-living, trend-chasing, usually lower middle to upper middle class, intellectuals. The Times writes about the issues of interest to its audience. That doesn’t mean they sway their content to favor their readers worldview. When they advocated for the Iraq war or Bush’s wall street bailouts, or took birtherism claims seriously, they certainly didn’t favor liberal ideals. WSJ’s readership is investors and business types and that paper addresses concerns of interest to them. That doesn’t mean they’re anything like the right-wing propaganda machine that blares out of drive time talk radio hurling racist and misogynist dares at all of America. Sure it’s gone downhill since Murdouch took it over, but its not some sensationalist GOP mouth piece like the rest of his nonsense.

        And it is way different that native advertising. Journalists should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, question the status quo and reveal truths businesses, politicians and other powerful entities seek to hide. Giving those entities any sway over content, even this limited sway is immoral and unethical and it destroys journalism.

      • William, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate your insight but would like to make clear that I’m not advocating for the papers to force their journalists to adopt a partisan stance (I’m no fan of Fox, believe me).

        Regarding the NYT and WSJ, I don’t think there’s anything wrong in pointing out the obvious fact that WSJ’s owners, editorial board and most of its readers are Republican while those constituencies at the NYT are Democrats. And in both cases, the news is delivered objectively while the op-ed pages tilt right and left respectively.

        As long as the lines between news, opinion are advertising are clearly delineated, I don’t think “native advertising” (or whatever buzzword we wish to use) will bring about ruin to journalism.