'Wall Street Journal' editor Gerard Baker decries native advertising as a 'Faustian pact'
Wall Street Journal managing editor Gerard Baker took to a podium last night and warned of the dangers of "native advertising," a big buzzword these days describing the practice of presenting brand-generated content in the style of editorial.
"The clear delineation between news and advertising is becoming more and more blurred. We have to resist that," Baker told a crowd at New York University's journalism school, before describing the deals many publishers are making with advertisers as a "Faustian pact."
"It's also in the end I think self-defeating for these advertisers, most of whom now are trying to force news organizations to do this," he said.
"An advertiser wants to advertise in The Wall Street Journal to be seen and to be associated with a brand like The Wall Street Journal, or The Financial Times or Bloomberg, because those news organizations are respected. If [advertisers] manipulate the digital or print operations of those news organizations, it makes the reader confused as to what is news and what is advertising, and the reader's trust, the very reason that those advertisers want to advertise in those news organizations, goes away."
Native advertising is of course not an entirely new creature. Most print publications have long offered programs where inserts or a few pages are taken over by advertisers, though the content is usually labeled "ADVERTISEMENT" and there are often ground rules about the extent to which the packages can look and feel like the editorial content presented elsewhere in the publication.
In its more modern and sometimes less discernible form, the practice was largely seen as the province of young digital brands like Buzzfeed until some of the industry's most august publications started jumping on the bandwagon in the face of increasing financial pressures. The list includes standard bearers like The Atlantic, Forbes, The New Yorker and The Washington Post. (Disclosure: Capital has run native advertising campaigns, too.)
But Baker is hardly the first traditionalist to decry the custom-content craze. Andrew Sullivan, the political blogger and former New Republic editor, is one of its most vocal detractors. During an appearance in May, New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson dismissed native advertising as being "for the conference set ... It's the buzzword of 2013's business model discussions at conferences."
Baker likewise characterized it as something of a phase.
"I think in the end, advertisers themselves will understand their interests ultimately are aligned with those of the news organizations," he said. "They do want those news organizations to maintain their reputation for trust.... So it's a challenge, but it's one that I think can be met if we stick to the principle of independence."
Baker, who was promoted to the Journal's top masthead slot last December ahead of parent-company News Corp's corporate split, also shared some thoughts on the ever-proliferating field of business-news competitors that are challenging the dominance of the old guard.
"The availability has never been greater," but "there's a danger for business journalism in particular" because the quality of many newcomers is subpar, he said. He didn't name names, but suggested that some such outlets derive their news from "rumor, gossip and information gleaned from someone talking to them in a bar."
At the same time, Baker acknowledged that even the Journal could learn a thing or two from the creativity and social engagement of its digital-native rivals. In particular, he gave Buzzfeed and Business Insider props and noted a recent example of the latter site pursuing longform narrative amid the daily chaos of its slideshows and listicles.
"To be fair, they're also doing very good journalism," he said.