Monday, October 29, 2018

I think it's important to define subsidized journalism more broadly than just native advertising.

[This started out as a reply to Andrew Gelman's post "The Axios Turing test and the heat death of the journalistic universe," but when you break 500 words...]

First, there is the age-old problem of advertisers rewarding/punishing publications. If memory serves, Politico back in the Mike Allen days was notorious for questionable ethics along these lines.

Far more subtle and dangerous is the quid pro quo associated with access. While most news organizations have rules in place to prevent editorial influence from advertisers and generally avoid even the appearance of impropriety, giving favorable coverage to sources (often even to the extent of letting them set the narrative and distort the facts) is so widespread that many journalists don't even see the ethical problem. Politico and Axios both have bad reputations in this regard, but the worst offender may well be the New York Times.

This is both a carrot and a stick process. When Disney found itself the target of an LA Times exposé about its dealings with the city of Anaheim, they responded by publicly cutting off the paper's access to the studio's talent, even though that was an entirely different department of the paper dealing with entirely different Disney business lines. The good news is that, now that Disney has become by far the biggest and most powerful entertainment company in the world with the acquisition of Fox, I'm sure they will be much less inclined to abuse their position.

Particularly in fields such as entertainment, companies often go beyond merely providing journalists with the raw material and actually provide the stories themselves. Sometimes this is done by sending out press releases that can be repackaged as features with a minimum of work. Other times you have what can only be described as ghostwriting. Someone with the studio or one of the PR firms it employs will send a reporter an email about an upcoming project. The next day it will appear almost verbatim under the reporter's byline.

In addition to supplying money and content, companies can also provide an even more valuable service as promotion partners. That exclusive you just published about a new movie will get far more traffic because of the hundred million dollars the studio has spent on marketing the project, not to mention the effects of the SEO push and the social media blitz. If you write a story that the studios want to promote, you can literally see millions of PR dollars spent on getting you eyeballs.

While none of this is by any means new, Netflix and to a lesser extent the other streaming services have pushed things to a new level, spending billions on marketing and PR, even green lighting hundred million dollar documentaries and art-house projects for no other apparent reason than that they will generate lots of coverage and might snag a few awards. This unprecedented amount of money has distorted the narrative to such an extent that it is impossible to gauge the cultural impact or commercial viability of Netflix, but most of the journalists covering this story (virtually all of those on the East Coast) remain oblivious to this aspect, perhaps because ignorance of this particular detail makes their lives much easier.

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