Here lies Web journalism, dead at the hand of the almighty advertiser

The fine line between shills and scribes is disappearing fast as cleverly disguised 'sponsored content' displaces real news

Don't know if you've noticed, but there's a hullabaloo over online ads masquerading as editorial on the Web these days. I'm here to tell you that the situation is actually much worse than you might think.

Though this has been an issue for a while, the discussion over sponsored content (also known as "native advertising" or "content marketing") really started to heat up a couple months ago after the Atlantic published a "sponsor content" article lauding the Church of Scientology and its Hubbard-wannabe in chief, David Miscavige.

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The screams came from every direction. How could the Atlantic, a bastion of East Coast intellectualism for more than 150 years, stoop so low? Perhaps more important, why did it allow the CoS to control the dialog afterward, deleting all negative comments?

Following the hubbub, the Atlantic removed the story and apologized for "screwing up." But make no mistake, this was hardly an isolated incident. It's more like the future of media as we know it.

This morning an email promoting a seminar on "online content marketing" landed in my inbox. It quotes Andrew Hannelly, VP of digital experience for custom publishers McMurry/TMG, thusly:

Publishers are now finally wising up to the value of content marketing for their advertising groups. They aren't just going to their clients and saying they have a great magazine or website and offering a banner ad, they're saying, "We've got a great, engaged audience -- why don't you create some content that engages with them?" The subtext is that people are ignoring advertising, but they're not ignoring content. For advertisers to really get in front of an audience, they should buy into the content stream.

FYI, "content stream" is marketing speak for "news stories."

BuzzFeed and Forbes are the ones we know about

Or take BuzzFeed, which churns out traffic-magnet "listicles" the way McDonalds churns out Quarter Pounders. It has its own creative team pumping out content on behalf of advertisers like Sony, Dell, and Virgin Mobile that looks identical to other BuzzFeed stories (save for the words "BuzzFeed Partner" in small type near the top). You know what? They're actually pretty good.

Or Forbes, which has fully embraced the concept of putting paid shills right next to actual journalists to see if anyone can tell the difference. (That's not how Forbes' Chief Product Officer Lewis DVorkin would put it, most likely.)

At least the ads on the Atlantic and BuzzFeed are labeled. More and more paid-for-placement content is not. And it's happening at some of the biggest sites on the Net.

Just yesterday, I talked to a charming young woman who runs a content marketing agency. Among other things, she hires people to ghostwrite blog posts on behalf of advertisers, then place them on blogs -- often, very well-known, highly trafficked blogs like the Huffington Post.

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