By Kevin R. Convey
Up until last week, I was a dove in the sponsored-content controversy. Or rather, I had evolved into one. Though I had been dubious about the category to begin with – and fearful about where it might lead – I had settled into a kind of fatalistic complacency.
Content operations, after all, need to find ways to replace dwindling ad revenue. And as long as content supported by sponsors was clearly marked as such, I didn’t see much difference between it and old-fashioned and long-accepted advertorial.
That was until I saw the post on PBS Mediashift last week touting, among other things, CUNY’s Tow-Knight program in general and Skillcrush and Narratively – both products of the program — in particular.
This is great, I thought. I immediately posted a link to the Tow-Knight Google+ community site to allow fellow TK-ers to take pride in the great ink – sorry, pixels. A few minutes after I did so, I saw a comment from classmate Ranjan Roy pointing out that it was sponsored content. Returning to the post itself, I found that I had read right over this at the top and bottom of the story:
“Educational content is sponsored by City University London’s International Journalism MA, a one-year professional master’s degree for the globally-minded (sic) journalist. Journalism is changing – we’ll give you the know-how to succeed. Apply today for entry in September 2013.”
In my rush to get to the good news, I – a reporter and editor for more than 35 years– had read right over that attribution/disclaimer. Suddenly, I felt deflated. A sponsor had essentially paid the site to hire a writer to say nice things about journalism education in general and CUNY in particular.
The piece crossed none of my earlier lines. It was clearly marked as sponsored content. It didn’t even mention the sponsor itself. But I no longer felt proud about the piece — somehow it now felt hollow, like a compliment you suspect may be false.
And this is one reason sponsored content sucks – one I hadn’t considered before. A story can be completely legit — and the Mediashift post, despite the fact that it was essentially a one-source piece with nary a discouraging word, was a professional piece of work – but the fact that some outside entity paid for it cannot help but dim its luster among those involved, those who know something about the field and those, unlike me, I guess, who are paying attention to the provenance of the story.
Who can know the motivation for running the piece? What orders were given to the writer? What involvement did the sponsor have in it? How many people, like me, will read right over the attribution and not even ask these questions?
This is what Jeff Jarvis was getting at Monday when he pressed us to make finer and finer ethical distinctions about the legitimacy of sponsored content. But I had to see it in action on a topic dear to me to really get it.