Is native advertising the end of journalism? 

The growing trend for using native ads in editorial environments online has got senior journalists worried about the erosion of editorial integrity. But are they right to be so concerned?

 Is native advertising the end of journalism? 

There’s a newish kid on the journalism block and some of the natives are getting edgy. Which is quite ironic really, since that newish kiddie is called ‘native advertising’.

But we had better get used to this, according to Noel Penzer, the UK country manager of AOL – he predicts that native ads are going to become the digital ad of choice, overtaking traditional media by 2025.

So what is native advertising?

It’s sponsored content that’s designed to sit seamlessly within a news or editorial environment. It’s like the digital equivalent of an advertorial, a sort of halfway house between banner ads and brand publishing.

As with other forms of content marketing, native ads use content to establish engagement and trust with potential customers. As well as on websites, you’ll find them on social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Warnings from journalism

Robert Peston, the BBC’s business editor, sees native advertising – a phrase he deplores as ‘Orwellian Newspeak’ – as part of an online traffic-baiting culture that is a ‘powerful threat’ to serious journalism.

He warns that news content masquerading as an advert isn’t worthy of the name, and condemns the ‘monetisation of news’, where no story can be published without being able to sell something.

Peston fears for a future news media landscape where journalists are considered to be little different from advertising and marketing employees. This will have a knock-on effect on readers, he argues, with bona fide news stories being marginalised by dumbed-down stories that are disguised promotional content.

Comments provide counterbalance

But native advertising isn’t really anything very new, and users can usually spot it a mile off. Take the Department for Education (DfE)’s new native Buzzfeed ad for teacher recruitment.

The premise is simple. The ad runs through a series of myths surrounding the teaching profession, pairing each with what it claims are the ‘realities’ of a teaching career. Each myth and each reality is accompanied by a quick humorous, looped video.

For example, one myth concerns the lack of career progression, showing a film of a puppy rolling about stuck in a cooking bowl. Underneath, the ‘reality’ claims teachers can move quickly into leadership positions. This is illustrated with a video of an ostrich skiing downhill.

OK, so there have been more subtle, less contrived campaigns. But, and this is key, after the content come some very candid user comments – mostly from teachers – which offer a useful and immediate counterbalance to the DfE’s charm offensive. Anyone thinking about a career in teaching sees two very different sides of the argument, both expressed very emphatically.

The comments provide a feedback mechanism that not only lends balance, but also gets people talking and thinking – which is surely what newspapers were supposed to be about in the first place, right?

Marketing v editorial

So perhaps news outlets don’t have a monopoly on producing content that’s editorially valuable in some way. Far from accelerating the death of serious journalism, native ads can live alongside and even enhance it.

As our content director Dan Brotzel wrote in a post for the Content Marketing Association: ‘Rather than dragging editorial into murky [commercial] waters, content marketing actually makes the age-old relationships and tensions [between editorial and commercial] explicit and sets them to work together rather than against each other.

‘Content marketing pays the reader the compliment of being up front about where the content is coming from, but is far too smart to think that product propaganda is anyone's idea of a good read. It blends the skills of 2 disciplines in interesting and original ways.’