4 Church-and-State Scenarios Publishers Must Consider in the Digital Age
Some pundits have claimed that publishing’s so-called “separation of Church and State” is a relic of the Golden Age of Print. But given recent trends in marketing and digital publishing, plus the need to consider WWGD (What Would Google Do?), not letting our commercial interests taint our editorial coverage may be more important than ever.
And it’s trickier than ever. In the old days, though publishers’ practices often fell short of their principles, at least we knew who the Church (the journalists) was and who the State (“the business side”) was. At most large and medium-size publishers, the two camps were literally separated by walls.
But with the rise of SEO (Is that a church function or a state function?), native advertising, editors held responsible for driving traffic and constant reinvention of our websites, the lines have blurred. And so has the meaning of church-and-state separation.
So let’s take a look at a few real-world, 21st Century publishing scenarios that fall into an ethical gray area. Although some are based on incidents I’ve witnessed, the details have been changed to protect the innocent -- and the guilty.
Scenario 1: An advertiser offers your publication good money to create sponsored content that would be published on your website and in your publication. Is it OK to assign it to a staff writer who often writes about the kinds of products the advertiser makes? Or should it only be handled by a freelancer or native advertising team?
This is a trick question: “Sponsored content” means different things to different people, which often leads to arguments and misunderstandings.
Suppose the advertiser makes fishing kayaks and wants you to create a series on the best places to go kayak fishing. It’s not looking for any influence over the content; it just wants to advertise next to content that is likely to draw its target audience.
What would be wrong with assigning the series to the writer who has the most expertise on the subject -- especially if the writer isn’t told who the sponsor is?
But suppose the advertiser insists that photos accompanying the series show only its products? Or suppose it’s looking for native-advertising puff pieces, with frequent mentions of its products and why they’re well suited to the specific locations.
In that case, you have relinquished editorial control and should clearly present and label the series so that it’s not mistaken for editorial content. Your title’s credibility depends upon. Also, assigning one of your journalists to write the series would jeopardize your title’s credibility as an objective information source.
Scenario 2: Is it OK to send an email to your newsletter subscribers, with your title’s branding, that contains only a sponsor’s message?
The common view these days is that, as long as the piece is clearly labeled as advertising or sponsored content, it’s OK. But when readers sign up for your newsletter or see your brand name, they’re expecting to get your voice.
Would you create a website or publish a magazine that contains only ads? Readers accept that your content will be accompanied by advertising, but they don’t accept when your trusted brand name is used to lure them into clicking on spam. Or worse than spam: I’ve seen publisher-branded sponsored emails that could be misinterpreted as publisher endorsements.
There’s a clean way to satisfy the advertiser: Sell it a sole sponsorship of an issue of your newsletter, with prominent placement for the clearly labeled sponsor’s content. It can even be a special issue, with editorial content that’s relevant to the sponsor’s campaign. The open and share rates will be higher, and your readers won’t feel spammed.
Scenario 3: You’re planning to publish an article focusing on comments from leading CEOs in a particular industry. Is it OK to interview only CEOs of companies that advertise with you?
Even if you don’t give the CEOs control over what’s actually published, you would be allowing your advertising interests to slant your editorial coverage. How long can you get away with that without your readers noticing?
Scenario 4: Your editorial team has just written a review of a product that sells well on your ecommerce site – and the review isn’t favorable. A competing product clearly ranks ahead of the one your site sells. Should you spike the story?
This issue should have been anticipated when you first set up the ecommerce program. Even if you didn’t explicitly promise to offer only best-in-class products, people are buying through your site because they trust what your editorial team says. Betray that trust at your own peril.
Selling recommended products on your website isn’t inherently a violation of church-state separation, but you’d better have a plan for when those products develop quality issues, get discontinued, or are surpassed by new products. Can you easily remove or redirect all links and promotions for a product? How quickly can you switch to selling a more highly rated competing product?
Our readers’ trust is a precious commodity, and in an age of fake news and online scams it can no longer be taken for granted. As advertisers become more concerned about brand safety and the environments in which their ads appear, earning status as a “trust agent” enables publishers to charge premium ad rates rather than being sucked into the race-to the-bottom world of declining CPMs.
Publishers also need to consider WWGD – What Will Google Do? Search engines have become increasingly adept at identifying advertising that masquerade as editorial content. So if most of the products you write about are made by your advertisers and most of the sources in your articles work for your advertisers, do you think the search algorithms won’t notice?
Publishers are also getting dinged by Google for things they don’t explicitly approve, such as recommendation-engine snippets and even sleazy programmatic ads. Google says its algorithms “consider a website responsible for the overall quality of the Ads displayed” even though the publisher “may not always directly control the content of the Ads." (This is from the latest edition of Google’s Search Quality Rater guidelines.)
Editor’s Note: Dead Tree knows his opinions are sometimes controversial and wants to hear what you think. Comment below or send feedback to Denis Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll anonymously publish worthy comments.