A couple of years ago, I posted my portfolio on Contently, an online site said to connect journalists with media outlets that had stories but lacked writers. Its focus soon expanded to include companies looking for journalists to write branded content—and the queries started cropping up in my inbox.
I can’t tell you about the first assignment I was asked to consider. I had to sign an NDA to get the details. But here’s what I can tell you: The beat was not one I typically covered and the stories would have been fun to write. There wouldn’t be any namedropping or product placement. In fact, I could see few areas where the brand would get involved in the content at all—the client’s goal was to secure engaging, well-written stories that others would spread through social media. Curious readers would click through to their site—endure an ad and a disclaimer, no doubt—and go on to read the story. I didn’t take that job in the end because I wasn’t sure I wanted to tie myself to the company.
Branded content—aka native advertising, content marketing, custom content, or whatever else you want to call it—is growing fast. Brands are publishing magazines and paying to publish articles on news sites, which offer varying levels of editorial independence. This type of advertising appears to engage readers in ways traditional ads no longer can—and provides media outlets with the means “to explore, in more depth than editorial budgets would otherwise allow,” stories they hope might interest their readers.
Many have written articles about content marketing and the erosion of journalism, but few have talked about who is actually doing the writing. From the writer’s perspective, there seems to be money in it—and this should worry editors who work out of slim newsrooms and rely on freelancers to fill their pages.
We all know freelancers who left journalism because it was difficult to make ends meet. (One freelancer told me it wasn’t feasible to drop industry work if he had any hope of raising his kids and avoiding a future of “living out of a shopping cart.”) Generally, pay rates have not climbed to match inflation and experience. They’ve gone down. We bought into the idea that a digital word was worth less than a printed word. Now we accept abysmal online pay rates, even at respected publications.
My unscientific survey of those who have engaged in some form of custom content—from writing articles to blog posts—finds that freelancers who take on these jobs can sometimes pull in two or three times what they might earn hourly from journalism work. They may even write stories that come very close to complying with the expectations of ethical journalism—except for the bit about not blurring the line between journalism and advertising.
Transparency is the best policy
This is where it gets messy. If a freelance journalist pitches, writes, and reports a story for a package that is “supported by Company X,” has that journalist crossed an ethical line, even if the company has not directed the reporting or in any way vetted the content? And what if the brand has had some say, through conversations with the editor, but the reporter has still approached the story the same way he or she would have for a journalism client? Has a black box been drawn around that content or source and made it off-limits to the freelancer’s journalistic work?
The answer is: Possibly.
In the old days (pre-2012), if you had written for an institution’s magazine and been paid by the institution, some editors would tell you that you couldn’t write about that institution for a year (or so). Others didn’t seem to care. Many freelancers write for newspapers or news magazines and for magazines and sites published by nonprofit advocacy groups and science societies. Some freelancers cordon off their corporate or non-journalism work by field—biotech versus environment, for example. Some editors are OK with this, others are not. (Brian Vastag (bio) has a great chapter on “The Ethical Science Writer” in The Science Writers’ Handbook.)
So, where does that leave freelancers in this new world of native advertising? If staff journalists and editors can’t work on native advertising (union contracts may prohibit it), that leaves freelancers to do the work. But some media outlets have blacklisted freelancers who write sponsored content from filing stories for the editorial side of their operations. Freelance journalists must choose between writing high-paying branded content for a top newspaper or a $100 blog post for the same outlet.
Few news outlets have posted their ethics policies online, readily available to freelancers. An exception: The New York Times’ handbook on ethical journalism offers excellent guidance for those who dislike grey areas—or are oblivious to them. The current version first appeared in 2004, long before this new grey area of native advertising popped up. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” a former editor of the French newspaper Le Figaro once said. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.) Without clear policies on native advertising, it’s up to freelancers to recognize potential conflicts of interests and, as one freelancer told me, to “disclose, disclose, disclose.”
Or you could hear what John Oliver has to say about native advertising.