Scrambling for Profit, Media Slip 'Custom Content' into Mix
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Berkow is frustrated with the lack of industry standards for the labeling of custom content.
"Labeling is a very subjective issue. Every outlet can just make their own case for what they think is ethical. So you get into discussions about how big the label should be. Should it be on every page? Obviously I'm of the opinion that it should be plastered over every other word so you couldn't possibly miss it. But what tends to happen is that you get the tiny little statement on the fist page of the sequence."
And he isn't alone with his concerns.
'Reinventing' what reporters do
"One of the challenges for us as an industry is that a lot of advertisers play us off against each other," Globe Editor-in-Chief John Stackhouse complained while speaking at a recent media panel on "Reinventing the Modern Newspaper." He was frank that The Globe continues to wrestle internally with what designs and labels to use, what different cues are necessary to be transparent to readers.
Lou Clancy, vice-president of editorial and editor-in-chief of Postmedia News, spoke at the same panel. He claimed The Post has upwards of eight different kinds of labels for their various sponsored content offerings.
For his part, Berkow believes that news outlets can do one thing to mitigate the risk of misleading readers, as well as to dampen the growing alienation felt by reporters and editors -- get freelancers to write the custom content. By assigning the pieces outside the newsroom, he says, readers won't get confused when they see a story with a staff by-line.
The Post is by no means the only news outlet where staff journalists, in addition to freelancers, are expected to produce custom content. The Globe recently moved five staff reporters to their custom content division so that dedicated reporters and editors could work full time to create brand sponsored stories and sections.
Don't call it advertorial
News organizations are quick to defend custom content, arguing that it is editorially sound and that they have little choice but to follow where marketers are going if they hope to survive.
Indeed, unlike advertorials, another form of lucrative and controversial sponsored content that lines the pages of mainstream news publications, custom content is not written by advertisers, outright public relations firms or glorified brochure writers in the publishers' offices. Rather, it is usually overseen by and produced by journalists. Furthermore, news organizations offer assurances that brands can't dictate what is written in the stories, nor do they have oversight over who gets interviewed and quoted in them.
"It's the trend right now" says Cathrin Bradbury, executive director of content development for the Star Media Group's Content Studios. "It's what brands and advertisers want to talk about. And if you want to be a successful and viable media industry right now in very difficult times you need to be listening to the people who are sustaining you."
Last year the Toronto Star produced what they refer to as a "directed content" series on mental health sponsored by Bell Canada. Bell chose the "mental health" theme. "But that [was] the beginning and the end of the conversation with Bell Canada" says Bradbury. The Star, she added, does not ask its staff journalists to create advertiser sponsored content. Its Content Studios where ad-sponsored content is generated, is hived off from the newsroom, and its stories are assigned to freelancers or are contracted out to smaller media outlets.
Over at The Globe, coffee company Nabob currently sponsors a weekly series in the Life & Arts section on the role that coffee houses play in the cultural and social life of cities. Jill Borra, executive editor of The Globe's custom content team, insists that this content, like all of The Globe's custom content, meets their journalistic standards too and is not interfered with by the brand.