Blurred lines: Are news and content marketing on a collision course?

Reports of the Evening Standard’s editorial independence being ‘sold off’ raise important issues for content marketers.

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At the end of May, it was reported that the Evening Standard secretly agreed a £3 million deal with companies including Uber and Google to provide them with ‘favourable’ news coverage – without telling readers. The paper was swift to deny these rumours. However, Adam Bienkov, UK Political Editor of Business Insider, relayed how former Standard journalists had witnessed similar – but less brazen – deals in the past.

News and neutrality

The rise and fall of newspapers has been widely discussed in recent years. Gone are the days when people merely consumed news either in print form or via rigidly defined programmes on terrestrial television. The advent of 24-hour news channels coupled with the proliferate rise of the internet has led to print sales dropping off a cliff.

All major paid-for print newspapers have suffered significant decreases in circulation with only the Metro and Evening Standard enjoying more positive figures – and that’s largely because they are free.

Newspapers have long held great sway in society, most notably with their political alignment. While this may not always have been obvious to the average reader, social media is an avenue where people seek to tear down clear cases of bias – something that extends beyond politics and into other spectrums. You only have to look at the recent treatment of footballer Raheem Sterling to recognise the agenda some publications have as a means for clickbait or selling papers.

Content marketing’s place

Where previously they may have sought to use an advertorial feature, many businesses have turned to a content marketing as a way of publicising their products. That way they avoid being labelled as supporters of a newspaper or magazine’s political stance.

For example, content marketers will often create articles generated around current events. It makes sense, allowing brands to piggyback on to trending Twitter hashtags and topical Google searches.

Generating such content is a popular tactic because brands can be open about hosting it. There’s no secrecy and the consumer understands that the company has produced something of quality. Even if there may be an underlying bias towards the company and/or its service, it will still be an authoritative piece if the company is up front about owning the piece – and would not want to tarnish its reputation by producing anything that’s overly provocative.

And this is where the issue with supposed ‘subliminal news’ comes into play in the Evening Standard. If the allegations are true about beneficial coverage to certain brands, then the difference between what the consumer expects to view as news versus pure content marketing becomes intrinsically blurred.

To make this clear, we are not talking about advertorials, which have long been common as a way for companies to reach a mainstream audience – and also for newspapers to provide clarity on paid-for pieces.

And although it could occur, we’re not necessarily talking about fake news either, where stories are simply fabricated.

Instead it’s the skewing of how certain companies are portrayed within the paper – picking and choosing when to cover them and eliminating negative press wherever possible. At a time when fake news threatens to undermine the integrity of the entire industry, this is separate model that can only add fuel to the fire.

An acceptance of bias?

Also interesting to note was the relative lack of coverage this leak garnered across the mainstream media. Only The Times reported it, behind its paywall. It would be remiss not to give the Standard’s rebuttal, where a spokesman told The Times: “Like all British newspapers, the Evening Standard has valued commercial partners and works with them on specific campaigns for the benefit of our readers. Editorial independence is and remains guaranteed in the contracts we sign.”

In an age where what colour flip flops Kim Kardashian wore when she was last seen out with her children commands a two-page spread in the tabloids and dozens more photos online, there wasn’t a peep about this story. Whether the silence suggests this practice might be more commonplace than we realise, we’ll leave that for you to decide. But what this case does again highlight is how valuable transparent content marketing is for businesses.

And finally…

Also last week, Uber, one of the companies named in the Open Democracy article, launched a series of videos in a tie-in with Channel 4’s on-demand service All 4.

Following the company’s considerable negative press in the last few years, the mini-series features Uber drivers on the road with their passengers. One of the videos features a quartet of Manchester United football players, one of their commercial partners.

It’s an interesting technique. Led by an aggressive in-your-face social media marketing campaign, it appears to straddle the line between content marketing and advertorial. It remains to be seen whether companies will follow Uber down this route.