Scrambling for Profit, Media Slip 'Custom Content' into Mix
"I hate it. I hate doing it... It's not what I signed up for." That's the lament of a former Postmedia reporter assigned all too often to write "custom content."
Most of us assume that media outlets still go about producing their news the traditional way -- a reporter sniffs out a lead or an editor assigns an evolving story or, these days, a columnist storifies a flurry of Twitter activity.
Increasingly, however, stories are put into motion differently. Referred to variously as custom content, custom publishing or directed content, Canada's major broadsheets and newsmagazines are now speckled with content spun up by marketers and brand sponsors.
Where commercial news outlets traditionally sold advertisers on the audiences that their journalistic product could attract, custom content allows outlets to charge brands for a seat at the table in shaping the content they produce, a voice in determining themes and story topics readers will see their advertisements associated with.
How does it work? Often like this:
A business agrees to buy pricey ads with the assurance those ads will be accompanied by stories that fit desired themes but which seem to have sprung straight from the publication's newsroom. Indeed, custom content often runs under the bylines of staff reporters and without any disclaimer. Naturally, though, it's understood those stories aren't going to be muckraking extravaganzas targeting the ad buyer or their industry. "Custom" is inevitably a euphemism for "soft."
Also, for "lucrative." Custom content has become a rare source of revenue growth for an industry in upheaval, still struggling to replace disappearing print advertising dollars and frustrated with the peanuts they get from click-throughs from online ads. As yet, marketers are willing to pay a premium for custom content. In The Globe's Report on Business section, for example, a single page of custom content costs advertisers a cool $40,071; a four-page spread clocks in at $132,586.
Custom content, unaccustomed journalists
While few readers know enough about this profit-driven new facet of the news business to raise concerns, the production of custom content is ringing alarm bells for the journalists charged with creating it.
Jameson Berkow is a former business reporter for The National Post. He struggled to adjust as an increasing proportion of his workload was shifted to reporting for "special sections," filing stories that were brand sponsored.
He's the one who told The Tyee, "I hate it. I hate doing it. It [made] me feel like I [was] in PR. It's not what I signed up for."
Though the stories were not, to his knowledge, ever looked at or approved by the sponsoring advertisers, Berkow was uncomfortable with having his byline on content he did not believe could be properly considered journalism.
"Every journalist knows that if they wanted to they could leave journalism, and go into PR or communications, and essentially double their salaries. The reason most journalists still don't do it is because they believe that what they are doing provides some value to society."
In one of his last pieces written for The Post this past October, Lodging in Luxury, Berkow wrote about new efforts being made by the oil sands industry, and Statoil in particular, to attract workers to remote oil sands sites with the promise of high-comfort living quarters and lavish amenities.
That piece was sponsored by Statoil.
On the day it was published Statoil advertisements could be found around the piece. But click on a link to the piece today and there is nothing to alert the reader of that relationship, nothing to tell the reader that Berkow's story came from Statoil.