Andrew Sullivan, editor of The Dish, gave a lecture on behalf of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics last night in which he railed against the evils of sponsored content. Sullivan argues that content intended, on any level, to confuse your reader is a breach of trust and that any writing done in service of a product or brand is propaganda. His accusations were fired at a list of publishers that includes but is not limited to BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Romenesko, Time, and, most recently, Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo.
Today, Marshall published a defense of his decision to start publishing sponsored content paid for by PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
Marshall makes the familiar arguments about his intention to retain independence and to clearly label the sponsored content as such, as well as the necessity of revenue to any news organization. But he also makes an interesting case for a reason why an interest group would want to pay for content beyond ultimately duping his reader:
Why are these “Sponsored Messages” attractive to advertisers, particularly our advertisers? Because our advertisers are policy focused and thus tend to have more complex arguments. They’re not just selling soap or peanut butter. There’s only so much of those arguments you can fit into a picture box or a video. They want room to make fuller arguments, lengthier descriptions of who they are and what they do, as you would if you were writing an editorial — in text, going into detail. The opportunity to do that to an audience like TPM’s is of particular value because you’re people who care about policy and you read stuff. That’s an advantage we have as a publication, something that allows us to stay ahead of the curve and the downward ad price pressures that are affecting much of the rest of the publishing industry.
See also Henry Farrell’s complaint at Crooked Timber and Marshall’s response in the comments:
Just as has long been the case, virtually all our revenue comes from paid advertising, mainly from advertisers from pretty clear industry and political motives. These are the advertisers who want to advertise in political publications. Shoe manufacturers and clothiers are generally not interested. (Entertainment companies, interestingly, are)…
Our Polltracker section and app in 2012 was 100% sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, literally the Oil Lobby. That didn’t make it a ‘sponsored section’. API wanted to associate themselves with the content and run their ads next to it.
— Caroline O'Donovan