Corrupting blogging

, posted: 15-Oct-2006 09:59

I read Michael Arrington's comments on PayPerPost clones ReviewMe and CreamAid with interest - and at the same thinking that it had to happen sooner or later. In brief, the above sites bring together advertisers and vendors who offers bloggers money to write about their products and services.

From a journalistic perspective, taking money from the subject of a story is a total no-no. Before someone shouts "what about advertising then? Don't they pay publications as well?" They do, but there is no direct connection between stories and payments. No reputable publication will let advertisers influence editorial content. There are many, many good reasons for this that don't need to be spelled out.

The separation of advertising and editorial is something that was nutted out over centuries as journalism developed. Traditional media have experience and mechanisms to work with advertisers and vendors, and there are even laws that codify what can and can't be done. Separating advertising from editorial is actually a good idea for both parties, as it makes the medium in question attractive to the readers both parties want to reach.

Blogs however have evolved into a popular media format without any safeguards as such for readers beyond what they themselves apply - common sense, scepticism, and doing your own research. Peer or community pressure also helps, but none of the above are guaranteed to work with blogs that are subtle, undeclared advertising tools. Some people think they're reading an honest opinion, but it's been paid for.

This kind of corruption regularly tests traditional media too. Not so long ago there was a debate over advertorials, a deceptive style of advertising that I personally can't stand. Advertorials are made to look like editorial content in an attempt to fool readers that they're part of the main publication.

However, most publications now refuse to let advertisers make the advertorial look too much like the main publication. They also insist that it is clearly marked as such - with "advertorial" or similar prominently displayed. I'm at a loss to explain why an advertiser would spend money on obvious advertorials because it is not information people trust and therefore will ignore. Coming up with good, creative advertising instead that gets people's attention seems to be a better idea, but it is of course much more difficult to accomplish.

There are more subtle forms of sneaky advertising like product placements and PR agencies feeding story ideas that journalists have to be aware of. One large tech company that I know of puts the majority of its marketing budget into product placements in TV and films and "courses" which are no more than glorified product demonstrations, rather than making available review equipment of objective evaluations.

Ultimately I can't see how eroding the very thing advertisers seek to capitalise on, namely integrity, is a good idea in the long term. It's very much an eat yourself kind of strategy but that's always been the case in an industry where your next set of sales figures are all that matters.

Going back to blogging, I'm pessimistic about the future. I suspect that an increasing number of bloggers will simply take the money and let others worry about the ethics of paid-for posts. It's a grey area because while journalists are expected to tell the truth, there is no such pressure on bloggers.

If a journalist takes money to write a story, it's a scandal. If a blogger does the same, others will want to know how much and can they join the network too?

Update I note with sadness that David Slack, the world famous in New Zealand novelist, journalist and televisioned raconteur, has fallen for the blogging payola already. No disclosure either.

Other related posts:
Twitter reporting
Speaking of prank calls
What PR people really think of journalists

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