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Scrambling for Profit, Media Slip 'Custom Content' into Mix

Some reporters resent rise of assignments born of deals with advertisers.

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Yes, the content is crafted to fit Nabob's "preferred environment." But Nabob "doesn't read the stories, [and] do not have input into the content. Period." Readers, therefore, have nothing to be concerned about goes the argument.

A bellwether for the industry?

In fact, rather than a cause for concern, Borra thinks custom content should be looked at in a positive light. Not only is it providing needed revenue to keep newsrooms running, it also enables outlets like The Globe to engage in niche journalism they wouldn't otherwise be able to do. As evidence of this, Borra points to the Nissan-sponsored, 24-page U.S.-election primer The Globe released the day before the recent U.S. election. It was chalk full of news and analysis from The Globe's top reporters and columnists.

In the case of Nissan's sponsored U.S. election content, the possibility of a conflict seems remote and the benefits to journalism (and journalists) apparent. In the case of Berkow's Statoil piece, the conflict is more obvious and disconcerting.

The fact remains, that even when a brand does not have undue influence or input into a story, tough questions linger: Does a reporter really have freedom to report objectively when they know an advertiser has paid directly for their story? Or will they inevitably engage, perhaps unknowingly, in self-censorship?

For those like Berkow who are distressed by these questions and concerned with the overall state of the news media industry, they can count themselves in good company.

In a report entitled  Post-Industrial Journalism released in November, well-known journalism commentators and academics Clay Shirky, Emily Bell and C.W. Anderson offered a jarring assessment of the state of journalism today.

There is no longer such thing as a news 'industry' for journalists to enter, they argue. And custom content and other attempts being made by legacy news organizations to preserve the shape of their business models are futile.

The fortunes of public interest journalism, they warn, are likely to get worse before they get better.

Which raises the question. Is the increasing presence of custom content in any news publication a sign that it is figuring out how to survive, or just evidence that it is so close to death that it is cannibalizing its own credibility to buy a bit more time?

More about this in a follow-up Tyee article in the near future.

  Jonathan Sas is the former editor of The Mark News. He holds an MA in political science from the University of British Columbia and was selected as a 2012Sauve Scholar. Read his previous Tyee articleshere.

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