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Ossie Bladine: This commentary for sale?

aoo3771/ Can Stock Photo
aoo3771/ Can Stock Photo

There’s a brick wall between news and advertising at the News-Register.

I mean that literally. The wall is about 25 feet high. Sales representatives work mere feet from my desk, on the other side of that wall, but if I yelled their name from my desk, they wouldn’t hear me.

That brick wall is also figurative. Newspapers have a long tradition of employing an untouchable divide between editorial content and advertising content. It’s lesson No. 1 in News Ethics 101: Under no circumstances should one side of the equation influence the other.

Of course, there are various levels of editorial morality for publishers and editors throughout the nation. We run a tight ship on the issue here at the News-Register. We understand how a business or organization spending money to promote an event or campaign in the newspaper may feel entitled to some news coverage, but, sorry, it’s just not the case. However, as I often tell people, at the end of the day, the news team also are readers of the paper. If we see something in an ad we feel is newsworthy, there’s a good chance we’ll follow up.

Sound Check

Ossie Bladine is editor of the News-Register, organizer of the Walnut City Music Festival and a quizmaster who extends a gigantic ‘thank you’ to his wife who takes care of the kid while Daddy goes off to socialize at the bar.

However, the space between editorial and paid content is weakening across Internet platforms.

Enter “native advertising,” which figuratively crashes the wall between editorial and advertising (like the coming quake will destroy this giant brick wall behind me, eek!).

Native advertising is the publishing of paid, commercial information that fits into the flow of news and editorial content. Occasionally, this content is clearly marked “paid advertisement”; other times it’s purposely hidden with vague terms like, “promoted content.”

The rise of native advertising has been exponential in the last couple years. What began as the funding mechanisms for clickbait farms like BuzzFeed has become considered by some as the future main revenue source for news organizations. Large newspapers are hiring marketing agencies to create native ad platforms, while others are building modern ad agencies of their own. The New York Times’ ad service unit T Brand Studio has been very active of late, including acquisition of “Fake Love,” an experimental agency the newspaper hopes will expand its native advertising strategies.

In what I imagine are very tense situations, some publishers are demanding reporters and other “content producers” to provide that sponsored content and native advertising material. The mutiny would be swift if I demanded ad content from the N-R news staff, I think.

Native advertising’s appeal to publishers results from a belief — in my opinion, a misguided one — that display advertising online is not sufficiently effective. The rise in mobile use for news consumption plays a role, too, since leaderboard advertising diminishes on the smaller format. So, publishers are finding more ways to pack a revenue streams into pages displayed on handheld devices. Furthermore, native advertising is a response to the rise of ad blocking.

The concerns of native advertising are obvious. It blurs lines between news and paid content. It also can leave readers feeling deceived, thinking they are being enlightened when, in fact, they are simply being sold a bag of goods. On the flip side, some readers — including a majority of Millenials, a recent report by YouGov found — don’t care whether the content is paid or not, as long as they find it enlightening or entertaining.

Late last year, the Federal Trade Commission issued guidelines for native advertising and sponsored content. The agency’s enforcement statement seeks to limit deception by advertisers and publishers. “The Commission will find an advertisement deceptive if the ad misleads reasonable consumers as to its nature or source, including that a party other than the sponsoring advertiser is its source,” the FTC wrote.

A study released this week claims about one-third of native ads don’t meet FTC guidelines. Only 4.5 percent of units analyzed were labeled as “advertising.” The same study found the label with the most effective clickthrough rate was “promoted.”

Advertisements in the news section were first addressed by the FTC in 1967, when it deemed a newspaper paid column promoting a restaurant to be advertising, and stated it should be labeled as such. Advertisements formatted like news articles in print came to be known as advertorials — the word itself blends “advertisement” and “editorial” — which have been widely used in publications over the years, but are less popular than they once were.

Will native advertising, the Millennial nephew of advertorial, follow a similar path? Polar, a digital ad sales platform that conducted the study mentioned above, also recently called renewal rates for sponsored content and native advertisers “weak.” Another platform, MediaRadar, listed the renewal rate of its ads at 21 percent on the year. Both say clients are unsure of the return they receive from native advertising. While disguising ads as news may be good for clicks, their presentation may actually hide what’s being advertised and the client’s message is passed off by the reader.

Other analysts and marketing managers claim native advertising to be the future, the savoir for struggling news outlets. Time will tell who is right.

As for the News-Register, there’s been nothing more than passing conversation on the topic. Our website does contain a section of sponsored content by a local doctor. However, it’s positioned on the sidebar with other advertising, not in the middle among news stories.

Our production of certain special sections are different. The upcoming Meet McMinnville, for example, is a compilation of display ads and advertorials, all produced by the ad and production team.

There are actually times when online readers have blamed us for deceptive advertising strategies. There have been multiple times when a gun-related article has appeared alongside a concealed carry class advertisement that rotates on the right side. Some people comment that it was done on purpose, while level-headed readers realize if they refresh their browers, the gun ad would be replaced with another.

Various revenue strategies will continue to be discussed here. Those discussions may include ideas that shake the foundation of that brick wall between the editor’s desk and the ad department. But I assure readers that deceptive advertising is not a practice we would ever employ.

By the way, as I’ve been writing this, I’ve been enjoying some Dots, the assorted fruit-flavored gumdrops. Not just tasty, their chewy nature helps me focus while writing commentary articles. Yes, Dots, from the makers of Tootsie. I’d recommend them while producing an opinion column. That’s who I should ask to sponsor my next article: Dots.

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