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

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Do the editors at these sites know that an advertiser paid that blogger to write it? Quite often they do not, she says, nor do they bother to ask. Because the appetite for new material on the Internet is infinite -- and readers' attention spans are infinitesimal -- publishers are happy to get any free content they can get their hands on.

Taking dictation for dictators

When they discover that the stories they were happy to publish for free turn out to be ads, sites with some remaining shred of ethics usually remove them. Last month, for example, HuffPo deleted a series of posts lauding the dictatorial Malaysian government paid for by -- surprise -- a PR firm working for the Malaysian government. The posts that my ghostwriting friend managed to place? As far as we know, they're still up there.

This is don't ask, don't tell -- the publishing version.

In the old pre-Web days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and publishing almost always involved dead trees, there was a treasured concept known as "separation of church and state." In this context, the state was the business side of a publication -- which is to say, ad sales and circulation. They collected the money and dispersed it; they ruled the budget process. Church in this metaphor was editorial, because we are holier than thou.

The idea behind this was to prevent advertisers from influencing coverage. By separating state apparatchiks from the high priests, publications would not be forced to cover products or companies simply because they spent beaucoup bucks on print ads, and editors would be free to say negative things about companies that were already advertisers (though in the most careful way possible -- they were paying our salaries, after all). There were many uneasy moments and difficult compromises in that arrangement, but generally it worked pretty well.

That separation is disappearing with extreme speed. There are a few brachiosaurs that still hew to this concept (I count InfoWorld among them), but more and more Web publications have merged church and state in a variety of ways and under different euphemisms, whether it's called "sponsored content," "native advertising," "online content marketing," or nothing at all.

Is that an actual news story or an advertisement pretending to be one? Sometimes not even the editors of the publication know for sure. If that doesn't worry you, it should.

Does it worry you? Or are you so cynical you don't trust anything any more? Post your thoughts below or email me:

This article, "Here lies Web journalism, dead at the hand of the almighty advertiser," was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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