Digital journalism and the end of church and state

—Michael Serazio

For generations of journalists, the separation of “church and state” referred not just to First Amendment protections for secular Americans. It was also the metaphorical way of phrasing an enduring ideal: that the business side of a news outlet would not encroach on the autonomy of the editorial side.

For advertisers, however, this was always an uneasy bargain. Audiences, they’ve long known, fundamentally mistrust advertising. For this reason, as I show in my new book, Your Ad Here, advertising often gets created to blend in, “guerrilla-style,” with contexts that don’t look like advertising.

In the case of newspapers, this explained those full-page “articles” written by a brand or marketer that affected the appearance of editorial content without the pretense of objectivity about the subject. Given the choice, the marketer surely wouldn’t have opted for “Advertisement” to run in small letters atop the piece, as it usually did – the newspaper’s equivalent of handling such content with Hazmat gloves.

Alas, newspapers have been in steady decline for the better part of a decade, as audiences consume more and more content through online sources. And, as the New York Times reported this week, a new set of norms for handling that sponsored material may well be taking shape.

It turns out that press venues both new and old – including The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, and Buzzfeed – have increasingly been accommodating brand-backed articles or, as I call it, “advertainment.” Because advertisers are discovering online – as they long knew of their print-based output – that banner ads are often annoying, irrelevant, and ineffective, alternatives must be considered.

“It is, in fact, content,” defended one representative at Forbes Media, which has experimented with these partnerships. “It’s not advertising.” One of the hallmarks of guerrilla marketing is precisely that self-effacement of the sales component in favor of something more desirable: here, journalistic reportage.

But for either the advertiser or the press representative to pretend that being “indistinguishable” is not their goal here – well, I’ve got a nice bridge connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan that they might be interested in buying.  Perhaps their reporters could do a “sponsored story” helping me make the sale.

Michael Serazio is Assistant Professor of Communication at Fairfield University and the author of Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing (NYU Press, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter @michaelserazio.