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Nov. 4, 2013, 9:25 a.m.
Business Models

The Texas Tribune is getting into sponsored content for a new online opinion section

The site plans to launch TribTalk, the nonprofit’s first experiment with sponsored content, which will also feature columns, opinions, and discussion from readers and elected officials.

texastribunelogo_1The Texas Tribune will begin experimenting with sponsored content in 2014 with a site dedicated to both standard and paid opinion pieces.

TribTalk will be the Austin-based news nonprofit’s answer to both the newspaper op-ed section and and the wave of interest in branded advertising — a place for commentary on Texas politics and an opportunity for the Trib to find a new stream of revenue.

As currently planned, TribTalk will be a separate entity from the Tribune’s newsroom, with a dedicated staffer to coordinate submissions and oversee moderation of discussion on the site. The ideas is that no hands on the editorial side will be involved in the production of the sponsored material, said Texas Tribune editor Emily Ramshaw. Instead the Tribune is envisioning a system where the same politicians, lobbying groups, nonprofits, and others who make up the site’s readership are submitting columns and other content ready to publish on TribTalk.

At the moment, the Tribune is still working out details like pricing and how sponsored content will fit into the site’s existing advertising products. The Tribune has enjoyed above-average success in diversifying its revenue beyond foundation funding, notably with events and sponsorship programs.

Ramshaw said the business staffers at the Tribune were beginning to express interest in finding a way for the site to put its own spin on sponsored content, and it fit into the op-ed section the site had lacked. “We’re getting so much commentary in our inboxes already,” Ramshaw said. “People don’t understand why the Tribune doesn’t have an editorial page already.”

As an exercise in sponsored content, what that means is the Tribune might see submissions from organizations like the Beer Alliance of Texas, AT&T, or Texans for Education Reform. But the goal is to round out the site with unpaid submissions from readers, officials, and others, Ramshaw said, and they’ve already reached out to 200 experts and other thinkers around the state to ask if they would be interested in contributing. There’s an audience of people who want to be involved with the Tribune, or use the Tribune as venue for ideas, she said. The site’s events business is one example of that, Ramshaw said. “People want to engage in person and online. They want a bigger platform and forum to do it,” she said. (Today is the first day of the Trib’s fifth year.)

The Tribune isn’t the only news organization working on combining op-ed DNA and advertising dollars; for instance, this summer, The Washington Post announced its “Sponsored Views” program. But Sponsored Views are limited to 600 characters and are attached to editorials from the paper. In format, they’re closer to an ad, or a privileged online comment.

As sponsored content has continued its spread across the media landscape, lots of companies are trying to adopt their own versions of the concept. That’s led to no small amount of confusion over labeling, as “sponsored content,” “branded content,” and “native advertising” blur together in some people’s minds. But no matter the label, the one seeming constant among organizations wading into sponsored content is fear over blurring the line between journalism and advertising.

“My gut reaction was: ‘Sponsored content? No. Of course not,'” Ramshaw said. “I think a lot of journalists have that response.”

Keeping TribTalk separate from the newsroom was one way of alleviating any of the fear around sponsored content. Ramshaw said they’re also planning to make TribTalk visually distinctive, using a design that sets it apart from the rest of the Tribune, a brand within a brand.

For TribTalk to succeed, the project will need to trade on the audience and recognition that the Tribune already has. Ramshaw says social media, as well as cross promotion within stories that relate to topics being discussed on TribTalk, will help develop an audience. Overall, Ramshaw said it’ll be a learning experience. “We’re trying this out as a giant experiment,” she said.

POSTED     Nov. 4, 2013, 9:25 a.m.
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