A Journalist’s Love Affair: The Rise of Sponsored Content

This article was written by Ayelet Abitbul, a student at the Arthur J. Carter Institute of Journalism at New York University. She shared her completed project with me and I've offered to host it here on my blog. To learn more about Aya and her work, check out her website  

As the fourth fiscal quarter approaches, it marks nearly nine years Americans have spent recovering from the aftermath of Wall Street’s 2008 negligence, from the perilous matchbox of subprime mortgages, faulty loan ratings, and lax lending standards, which was detonated by the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, and which exploded into the worst American financial crisis since the Great Depression. Though nearly every industry spent the past near-decade inching towards recovery, with employees yearning to get back into their routines of gilded 2007, some have paved new routes, creating jobs never before occupied in their industries, transforming and redefining their entire trade. The media industry is one, as journalists have found opportunity and reward applying their skills in a new kind of work: sponsored content.

Melanie Deziel is one such journalist. When Deziel graduated in 2013, she, like thousands of hopeful others with Master’s degrees, faced a barren job market. She earned a traditional editorial education, graduating in 2012 from the University of Connecticut with a Bachelor’s in Journalism, and in 2013 from Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications with an M.A. in Arts Journalism. But unlike many other Master’s students headed for the ranks of high finance or the cradles of bureaucratic academia, Deziel was dedicated to a line of work that financially recovered slower than nearly any other: the media industry.

According to Pew Research Center, from 2007-2012, fourteen-thousand six-hundred news journalists lost their jobs, and magazine writers were cut by thirty-five thousand. For few references, the Tribune Co., corporate owner of the Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune, declared bankruptcy, the entire photography staff at the Chicago Sun-Times was discharged, and the largest circulating daily in New Jersey, The Star-Ledger, laid off 45% of its editorial team, all by 2012. The few journalists still employed worked for a pittance, as tight budgets and low salaries were compounded with the rise in online media, which drove subscription revenue down while demand for traditionally printed, paid content became freer.

On entering the recovering economy, Deziel reflected: “I was looking how to put my [investigative and editing] skills to use in a different industry or in another context. And that’s how I ended up on the brand-story telling side.”

Deziel working as Editor-in-Chief at the Daily Campus, UConn’s student paper, in 2012. Credit: Rachel Weiss/The Daily Campus

In 2013, Deziel began as one of the first journalists experimenting with sponsored content, hired by the Huffington Post to create pieces for brands like Nature Valley, Citi, and American Express.

Advertiser-backed media created by journalists, or sponsored content, had been around for some time in the form of advertorials. But around 2013, Deziel explains that brands began ditching copywriters and in-house marketing staff as their primary story-tellers in their ads, replacing them with classically-trained ones—journalists.

“The Greatest Story Ever Told,” Sponsored by Netflix

“Brand-story telling,” or the practice of “helping advertisers tell better stories” according to Deziel’s definition, has seen a steady increase in the past five years since the recession. Essentially, it’s when advertisements are written in the form of articles, in the “voice” of the publication, and laid out, either in the paper or on the news site’s homepage, alongside regular editorial content. Brand-sponsored content falls under a larger umbrella of “native advertising,” as the advertisements appear “native” to the environment in which they’re displayed.

In 2014, Deziel was then recruited to launch the sponsored content team for The New York Times, building today’s T Brand Studio team. Deziel explained that her team was “set up like a mini-newsroom” with the same goal as HuffPost Partner Studios: “to help advertisers tell stories that live on nytimes.com, write in a way and create content in a way that would appeal to the New York Times audience.”

There, she wrote what became a pedagogical piece of sponsored content, titled “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work.” Commissioned by Netflix for their upcoming season of Orange is the New Black, Deziel used video, infographics, digital illustration, and traditional type to describe the inequalities female prisoners face in a system logistically designed for men. The piece climbed to the top 2% of all content viewed on the New York Times’ website in 2014, and won the Online Marketing and Media Award (OMMA) for Best Native Advertising Execution.

Advertorial in Disguise?

When asked about the difference between the infamous “advertorial” and sponsored content, Deziel says, “I think there’s a lot of people who see them as the same thing, and in many cases they are.” She explains that advertorials are exclusively brand created, where companies are “buying a full page ad and happen to fill it with words instead of pictures.”

According to a New York Times audience-traffic report, there’s a quantitative difference between the two, too. By the end of T Brand’s first year, the New York Times reported that there were 632% more visits to T Brand Studio-produced content than advertiser-produced content, and users spent 526% more time with the former. On Facebook, T Brand content outperformed that of advertisers by 1,613%. According to the Times’ 2016 year-end reports to its investors, the T

Brand campaigns generated 6% of all ad revenue from only 50 brands, which totaled $33.6 million—double the studio’s revenue earnings of 2014.

That a single campaign price begins at around $50,000 and can reach into the multi-millions provides further financial incentive to grow the Studio, says Sebastian Tomich, VP of T Brand Studios. “This business is not easily replicable,” he reflects, but “it’s something The New York Times can be the best at.”

This reconfiguration of journalistic talents inspired other publishers to jump on the sponsored- content bandwagon, too. Today, in addition to T Brand and HuffPost Brand studios, journalists have found work in the Washington Post’s WP Brand Studio, Conde Nast’s 23 Stories, and Forbes’ BrandVoice, among others.

But financial incentives are not exclusive to publishers. Grace Gold, a freelance beauty journalist, believes that higher compensation for brand-sponsored content can provide a journalist with “the financial freedom to write the editorial stories you actually want to write, instead of cranking out a ton of low-paying editorial stories you don't feel very passionate about, just to pay your bills.”

What’s Left for the Watchdog

Unlike Deziel, not all are so quick to welcome branded content on the same pages as their news.

Dr. David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, asks, “Does it make the place better or worse?” He continues, “I’m fine with feisty advocacy marketing in which a company makes a claim as honestly as it can. I’d just be happier if the company posted it on their own site.” The biggest problem in sponsored content, he believes, is that “readers may mistake it for actual journalism if the label is too small or unclear. The wall can be too thin.”

Deziel emphasizes, however, that at the New York Times, the “wall” between branded and editorial content production involves two separate wings and “literally two separate elevator banks, one for editorial and one for business.”

“We don’t go each other’s floors, we don’t sit next to each other, we don’t talk to each other. There’s no mingling whatsoever” she says. “Most of the folks that I’ve seen with strong, visceral, anti-content reactions are usually coming from a place of not understanding that the editors don’t have anything to do with it.”

Still, this answer doesn’t satisfy Dr. Weinberger’s primary concern, that putting “partisan work that looks like journalism literally next to actual journalism” is ethically contentious, for “even when it is properly labeled as paid for by a company, the proximity of actual journalism can elevate the seriousness with which the paid content is taken.”

Indeed, a study conducted by the American Press Institute (API) on graduates with a degree in journalism or communications found that 66% believe “sponsored content crosses ethical boundaries and will damage news organizations’ credibility.”

But despite these ethical concerns, Gold explains an attitude towards sponsored content she believes many journalists must share anyway: “ When you see editorial pay rates nosedive in half or in quarter over a few years, and you see sponsored content rates only increase, your perception changes.”

In “The Rest Is Advertising: Confessions of a Sponsored Content Writer” Jacob Silverman, who purposely wrote without a byline for Atlantic’s Re:think Brand Studio, admits “It was money that got me into the sponsored content rack.” For the “glossiest” pieces, he explains, some advertisers are willing to pay up to four dollars a word. His perception on branded content, though, hasn’t changed. He believes that “the line between what’s sponsored and what isn’t—between advertising and journalism—has already been rubbed away.”

Despite the media industry’s alleged poor financials, Silverman believes “the truth, after all, is that there is money in journalism. It’s just woefully misallocated.” While media companies are paying the highest salaries to in-house brand writers, he says, Silverman reminds his readers that “a mass of freelancers—whose work is necessary to the functioning of many publications—cadge whatever assignments they can and don’t complain when the checks take six months to arrive.”

He concludes, “such is the anticlimax of sponsored content: it promises to know the future of news, but in the end, all it’s got is cash.” Gold has some advice for these ethically-conscious readers: “subscribe to publications like the New York Times, to support good old fashion journalism.” A testament to Deziel’s defense of the separate editorial and sponsored content wings of the Times, Gold says, “The New York Times does sponsored content, but you can see it doesn’t influence what the rest of the publication covers.”

The Rise of the Content Guru

After she set up shop at T Brand, Deziel transferred to Time Inc. as the Head of Creative Strategy. She then set out on her own, working now as a private consultant for brands looking to get their content strategies off the ground. She’s an educator in this fairly new world too, frequently traveling to teach content strategy workshops to corporate staffs. She spoke in 2016 at over sixty events to more than twelve-thousand people, according to her blog. She also launched a native advertising industry newsletter, The Overlap League, that offers news and strategy tips in the blossoming native ad world.

In an interview, Deziel asks, “Perhaps we have yet to really see them. imagine the impact and the benefits for readers, publishers and advertisers once some of these big brands are able to shift their mindset and can begin putting resources toward telling great stories that may not yet have been told?”