This post is likely to piss off a lot of people, but here goes.
The discussion regarding credibility and ethics related to sponsored-content as been civil and illuminating, and has generally reaffirmed my belief that there are now many forms of valid B2B communication, even if one believes one is morally superior to all others. The one uncomfortable part of the discussion has been the veiled accusations of moral failure for certain individuals and organizations.
So last night I did a quick content snapshot of several publications. On one side I looked at sponsored-content sites, including New Tech Press in that category. On the other side I looked at three sites that identify themselves as independent journalism. This is what I found.
On the independent sites, there were 40 to 50 pieces of content. On one site, eight pieces were original and the other 42 were press releases, articles paid for by sponsors, and ads. On the second site there were five rewritten press releases, a video interview of an executive from an advertising company, 20 verbatim press releases, seven ads and two pieces of original reporting. On the third site there were 8 ads, 15 pieces of original content feature representatives of site advertisers, and 10 verbatim press releases, and three pieces of original content not featuring advertisers.
Over on the sponsored sites, all content was original, New Tech Press had three pieces that mentioned sponsors, but were primarily about applications that included several companies' technologies, and 10 non-sponsored pieces. Spark and Intel Free Press, on the other hand, did not mention the sponsoring companies in the content at all, except to point out that the content had been subsidized. There were no ads, press releases (rewritten or verbatim), no contributed opinion pieces from corporations. Moreover, the links in the text directed readers away from the sites 9 times out of 10, and always to other independent sources.
What can we assume from this? Does true journalistic independence mean that multiple sponsors pay the freight in exchange for 80 percent of the real estate on the site... or is it based on personal intent?
The wall has disappeared
The argument that a medium is independent, ethical and credible simply because it accepts advertising from multiple sources does not hold water. The esteemed "wall" between advertising and editorial in the B2B world was obliterated decades ago when publications started accepting contributed articles. Every time a journalist sits down with an advertiser to discuss his latest product announcement, and then writes a story about it, the wall does not exist. Every time a journalist picks up a print edition a thumbs through it... and sees who is advertising... the wall does not exist.
A medium is independent because the people operating it have decided to be independent and ethical. Only they know the real truth. In the end, it is up to the medium's audience to decide what is credible. If the journalist is intentionally acting independently, or is acting in collusion with the corporation to delude customers, the audience will figure it out.
Not to get religious on you, but this guy named Jesus said it this way: Don't condemn the intentions of others, unless you want to be condemned as well.