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Finding revenue in 'free' online news

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The New York Times recently announced native advertising will be on its website in early 2014. From the brouhaha surrounding the announcement, you'd think the world as we know it is about to end. Or that the Times has publicly endorsed something unbelievably heinous.

Native advertising has, to many, become a bad word. Some top traditional publication executives barely manage to force the phrase past their lips, and when they do, it's with dripping disdain. Others recognize the much-needed big advertising-buck potential of these types of ads.

The online content we all want to enjoy for free costs digital media and web-based publications of traditional media money to produce. That money has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is advertising.

Jaded consumers are turning a blind eye to pop-ups and banner ads, making this type of conventional online advertising less effective. Native advertising could be the solution to the dilemma of catching the attention of indifferent consumers and keeping online publications in business.

The main idea behind native advertising is to create an advertisement that looks as much like editorial content as possible, whether it's a text article or video. (It's the digital equivalent of the advertorial, an ad-editorial hybrid once common in many print publications.) These ads look like real stories and are placed smack dab in the middle of unsponsored content.

And therein lies the biggest problem opponents have with native advertising. They see it as confusing, blurring the lines between real journalism and advertising, ultimately irritating readers and calling into question the integrity of the digital publication in which they appear.

This is what happened in January 2013 with the online version of the literary and commentary American magazine The Atlantic Monthly. A poorly labelled sponsored web post by the Church of Scientology, boasting about the church's latest accomplishments, caused uproar among readers who were upset the magazine appeared to write a positive piece about a controversial institution that didn't fit with the publication's brand. The Atlantic ended up eating proverbial humble pie, profusely apologized, aborted the ad and created clearer native ad guidelines.

The Times, winner of 112 Pulitzer Awards and one of the United States' most respected news organizations, has no intention of making the same error. To make sure there is no confusion between advertising and journalism pieces, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said sponsored content will be wrapped in blue and labelled "paid post." Clear labelling will ensure journalistic integrity isn't compromised since readers won't be able to mistake an ad for anything other than what it is. It's an easy, win-win solution for everyone.

Perhaps you're thinking: So what? What does all this have to do with me? Well, obviously, if you're an online Times reader, you'll continue to enjoy the publication for free. And you don't have to worry about being tricked into reading advertisements. They'll be marked with the digital equivalent of flashing neon lights.

But there's another issue to consider. And that is this type of advertising isn't going away any time soon.

True, native advertising may not yet be as big in Canadian online publications as it is in American ones. But those who consistently read American digital media, in addition to Canadian print and digital publications, are going to come across brand-generated content presented in an editorial style at some point.

Since no uniform label guidelines for native ads currently exist, it's possible such ads won't be clearly marked. As a discerning reader, be aware they exist and learn to recognize them for what they are. (Here's a hint. The piece is likely an ad if it's trying to sell you something, or if it's presented from the perspective of a manufacturer or organization.)

Native advertising isn't inherently bad, if used in moderation. The best pieces are targeted, providing either an innovative and amusing story, or the same value as any other content on the site. This type of advertising also has the potential to be what saves a floundering digital media by providing much-needed funds to keep our favourite news sites from going under.

If we want to keep enjoying the fruits of online information for free well into 2014, and beyond, we need to accept and embrace native advertising.

Diana Moes VandeHoef is a Winnipeg freelance writer and independent copywriter who has written marketing and public relations material for clients in five countries.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 30, 2013 A9

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