The last few years have been some of the hardest the world of newspapers and magazines has known. Changes in the way we consume news, the rise of user-generated content leading to expectations of free articles and of course, the pandemic, have all sadly caused the demise of many long-standing publications.
A creative approach and often a rethink of their business model has been the saviour of those that have managed to tough it out so far. For many, this has meant a shift towards ‘paid-for editorial’ – basically, charging businesses to have their news and press releases included in their pages.
While it’s vital that titles continue to not only survive but thrive, I am increasingly concerned about the impact this shift is having not just on the PR/journalist relationship but also on the clients I work with, small businesses who manage their own PR, and the publications themselves. Here’s why:
‘Paid-for editorial’ is an oxymoron
In its simplest form, this is how the media relations element of PR should work:
Publications are looking for good news stories, so they gather them mainly in two ways – through their own contacts, or through submissions, when a business or PR, on behalf of a business, sends them a story, pitch, or idea.
The recipient journalist is either:
a) interested in the story and runs it as an article. They may add into it their own research and opinions. You might not know about it being used until you or someone else sees it – they don’t always get back to you.
b) not interested – and bins it. They won’t let you know it’s a no!
However, over the last few years, there has been a creep up in press releases being sent to advertising and sales teams, who thank you very much for sending in such a wonderful story to them that fits exactly what they are looking for and their readers will love.
But there’s a catch – they want you to pay to be in their publication – which blurs the line massively between paid-for advertising and genuine news published with integrity.
And integrity is the key thing, because anyone can pay for a story to be printed. It might get a bit of a tweak from the newsdesk, but you can still get it in one way or another.
Maybe that’s what we should all be advising our clients to do – just pay to get in then the job’s a good ‘un.
But all of our experience in news, media and PR tells us that proper PR isn’t bought – it’s earned.
‘Advertorials’, as these paid-for editorial opportunities are called, are another way for the publication to make money. If they were making enough money from real advertising, they wouldn’t have to charge for real news to be included.
Maybe this is it, or maybe they just want bigger profits, or to bankroll another part of the business – who knows?
An ‘editorial’ piece is an article written by and expressing the views of an editor or their team.
It is, by definition, free. That’s why when it’s been paid for, they have to tell you with a line at the top saying ‘sponsored editorial’ or something similar.
Unbiased, balanced articles are at the heart of journalistic integrity.
Any article paid for by its subject represents their opinion of themselves, rather than any kind of third party endorsement or critique. It cannot therefore be classed as editorial and is, quite simply, an advertisement.
Readers don’t enjoy being sold to
As consumers of media, we read particular titles because we trust their opinion, value their insights, or just find them interesting or entertaining. Publications containing a heavier balance of adverts than genuine editorial simply turn readers off. Who wants to read pages of trumpet-blowing – there’s no integrity because the balance will always be tipped into ‘this is fantastic’.
Similarly, how often have you attempted to read a free website only to find every paragraph punctuated with pop-up ads that interrupt the flow of the article or worse, cause constant buffering and screen-freeze, deeming it unreadable?
At least when a reader knows they are being sold to they can choose to read the content or not – what’s worrying is when it’s not clear…which leads to my next point…
Ambiguous adverts are illegal
Advertising Standards Authority rules state that any advertising must be explicitly labelled as such – for example, ‘sponsored content,’ or ‘advertisement.’
However, it appears that some titles offering ‘paid-for editorial’ are not being transparent about the nature of some of their content. Press Gazette recently reported evidence of several business-to-business titles requesting ‘admin’ or ‘printing’ fees in exchange for featuring press releases and labelling them as ‘news.’
Admittedly, charging for inclusion – or ‘colour separation’ costs as they were often known – has been common practice among trade titles going back as far as the last twenty years or more. But these articles were always clearly described as paid-for content.
Lack of clarity or, let’s face it, downright dishonesty about any bias or influences within an article can irreparably break readers’ trust.
And readers who feel duped may not return.
It’s damaging journalism
It’s hard to overestimate the role that good journalism plays in society.
But if budget restraints are leading to a journalist’s role being diminished to that of a glorified copy-and-paster, where is there room for investigating wrong-doing, uncovering truths, presenting complicated information in a digestible format, highlighting good causes, or simply entertaining readers?
Advertising is important
This blog is not intended to extol the virtues of PR while vilifying advertising. The two can and should work hand in hand. A well-planned PR campaign builds positive word of mouth about a business or product, while supporting advertising can help drive home a consistent message and precisely target your audience.
Advertorials – which is the correct term for ‘paid-for editorial’ – are a great combination of the two. Clearly labelled as advertising but designed to look like editorial and fit the style of the title they’re placed in, when written well, they can be an interesting read and get across genuinely valuable messages. But balance and clarity is key.
In conclusion, there is no easy solution. In a world where a public fatigued by relentless world crises: the pandemic, war, the spiralling cost of living, is turning to unreliable and wholly unqualified sources of ‘truths’ on social media, trust in the media has never been so fragile. Indeed, there is a huge PR job to be done on journalism itself – reminding audiences of the value of genuine expertise, and encouraging greater acceptance of subscription fees and paywalls.
Whatever the answer, it’s clear that keeping the reader at the heart of content is key to not only the ongoing quality of publications but also serving the interests of, and maintaining a harmonious balance between editorial and advertising teams, PRs and businesses alike.