Is Sponsored Content the End to Journalism?

31 Mar Is Sponsored Content the End to Journalism?

Online journalist and founder of website, The Dish, Andrew Sullivan believes sponsored content is ruining journalism. He recently gave a talk to a Harvard Law School audience entitled, “How Advertising Defeated Journalism.”  He defined sponsored content “as a piece in a magazine or newspaper that looks almost identical to every other article in the magazine, but in fact is written by a copy-writer, hired by a corporation.”

Sponsored content is on the rise as traditional advertising and the once-popular subscription model has collapsed; publications are looking for more creative ways to make a dollar.  Sullivan argues that sponsored content gives traditional media outlets like The New York Times, The Associated Press, and The Atlantic, less credibility.   He believes sponsored content will lead to widespread reader cynicism and consequently, obliterate the effectiveness sponsored content was meant to have in the first place.


Companies like the idea of shaping ad messages into an editorial format.  This placement has traditionally been earned, making it all the more valuable.  Not to mention, consumers read publications for the content, not the ads.  No matter how savvy a reader you may be, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate paid verse earned placement.  Some publications differentiate the sections while others are introducing “hidden paid content” to capitalize on the “content is king” movement. Publications are offering slots that were once written by staff writers open to the public for a small fee.  Some will even offer to write the piece for you (for an extra fee, of course) to stay within the style and tone of the publication.

This is, to an extent, what public relations achieves for its clients (of course, they offer a whole host of other services as well).  PR reps pitch editors on an idea and usually if the company is newsworthy, the article is void of overly product/service promotion, and the editor likes the subject matter the article is published.  This relationship is free and has been for a long time.  With more publications moving into the “pay for play” space, even PR reps are having a hard time pitching their client’s thought leadership.

So, back to Sullivan’s belief that sponsored content is ruining journalism  – I think it’s a little overzealous of a statement. Journalism has been struggling for the last decade as news and information has moved online.  Many publications couldn’t keep up with the change and have since folded, the ones left are merely trying their best to adapt with changing times and often a skeleton crew of staff writers.  If used correctly, I think sponsored content can be a very effective tool. As for whether publications decide to clearly indicate when content is paid or sponsored is at their discretion.  I have a feeling that if the content is truly interesting and thoughtful verse promotional, the readership will have an interest in the topic regardless.

Jessica Lindberg
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