Dec 10, 2014 · 17 minutes

Shane Snow is going to save journalism -- that is, if he doesn't destroy it first.

Snow is the chief creative officer of Contently, a New York firm specializing in that most distrusted and despised of advertising products: Sponsored content. And with big names like Coca-Cola, Walmart, and General Motors as clients, Contently is arguably at the top of this dubious field.

Sponsored content (or "native advertising" or "content marketing") refers to articles that often look like pieces of independent journalism, but are in fact commissioned or produced by a brand. For example, Coca-Cola might write a piece called, "10 Reasons to Drink Diet Coke This Holiday Season," and pay Buzzfeed to host it on its site. The list would look like any other Buzzfeed article with the exception of a subtle disclosure stating it was paid for by Coke. Sounds harmless, right?

Not always. In 2013, the Atlantic published a fawning profile of Scientology leader David Miscavige, produced and paid for by the Church of Scientology itself. Because of the numerous controversies associated with the Church -- not least of which being its aggressive efforts to silence and smear journalists -- readers were appalled that the Atlantic would accept it as a client. The post was removed less than 24 hours later.

Yet for all the attention paid to sponsored stories that live directly on news sites, increasingly brands are launching their own publications -- CocaCola Quarterly, if you will -- which in some ways is even more troubling. When news sites host the content, at least they're held accountable when an article fails to meet acceptable standards of truth or transparency. But who needs those standards when brands make their own content sites, like General Electric's "award-winning online magazine" GE Reports? I haven't aggressively factchecked its articles, but I think it's safe to assume the "award" was something other than a Pulitzer.

For all of these reasons, many journalism purists label sponsored content as basically Satanic -- a grotesque chimera of reporting and advertising that sucks the integrity out of any writer or organization it sinks its teeth into. At its worst, a piece of sponsored content is designed to fool readers into thinking they've read a normal news story, written truthfully and independently, when in reality it's tainted by the agenda of the brand that paid for it. Comedian John Oliver, the host of HBO's "Last Week Tonight," even railed against sponsored content in one of his trademark, viral-ready rants, which are only reserved for the very worst elements of American society like racial injustice, income inequality, and pumpkin spice lattes. Nobody wants to be in that company.

Again, some sponsored stories are clearly less scuzzy than others. But ever since the Atlantic Scientology debacle, I've tended to take the same view as Oliver, who described native ads as “repurposed bovine waste.” And that's why, as I rode the elevator up to Contently's office in SoHo last month, I half-expected the door to open on some sinister brand-damaged nightmare -- like Times Square meets the Temple of Doom, run by sociopaths.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

"There’s this difference between 'journalism' and 'content.'"

Contrary to the demon frat house I had expected, Contently's headquarters were warm, inviting, and a little chaotic, like a college literature professor's domicile. Books from every literary era and genre filled the main room, piled haphazardly on desks as if to suggest they are actually read from time to time, not just laid out for show. In the same vein, portraits of Franz Kafka, Oscar Wilde, and over a dozen other legendary writers were hung on the wall, watching over Contently's workstations and gazing inscrutably at its staffers, who were presumably hard at work plotting new ways to tell stories for soda companies.

Was the high-minded literary decor simply an affectation designed to trick visitors into believing the company had some higher purpose beyond writing copy for brands? As if the office itself was a metaphor for the lowest kind of sponsored content that masquerades as journalism or art? Or worse, had it imbued Snow and his staff with an outsized estimation of the importance of the work done here? I mean, this is a company that once published an article questioning why Zadie Smith, one of the world's greatest living novelists, wasn't more interested in "brand storytelling."

My concerns were quickly put to rest, however, after hearing Sam Slaughter, Contently's VP of Content, make one simple observation:

"There’s this difference between 'journalism' and 'content.'"

That sentence should be spray painted on the walls of every media and ad company on the planet. One of my biggest anxieties over sponsored content is that, as it evolves, brands will take over for journalists as the chief storytellers in society and the chief gatekeepers of information. Snow and Slaughter, who are both accomplished journalists in their own right, don't want to see that happen either.

"We always talk about the war in Syria coverage," Snow said. "You don’t want that coming from Exxon, or even a friendly brand like Doritos. You want that coming from an objective -- or at least trying to remain objective -- source."

Keeping brand loyalties out of hard news reporting absolutely serves readers; I think every journalist would agree with that. But what Snow and Slaughter understand -- and more importantly, what they're able to communicate to clients -- is that it also serves brands to leave the real reporting to the experts. Earlier this year, for example, telecom giant Verizon began hiring reporters for a technology news site called SugarString. The site would not be "advertorial," its editor promised. Instead it would publish news and analysis like any other tech publication, competing for the same readers as the Verge or Pando.

There was one problem, though: SugarString's reporters were forbidden from writing about spying or net neutrality, two of the most controversial, complex, and newsworthy concerns facing the tech world. Verizon's corporate destiny was simply too closely tied to NSA disclosures and net neutrality politics to allow SugarString's reporters to cover these issues, objectively or otherwise. Consumers and journalists were appalled by the blatant hackery of the move, and the company shut down the project barely a month after it debuted.

The SugarString fiasco looked like a significant blow to Contently's industry, further eroding what little trust readers had in sponsored content. But Snow believes that high-profile failures like this make the content marketing ecosystem that much stronger, serving as lessons to brands on how not to betray readers. In Verizon's case, that lesson was, "Stick to entertainment, not news."

"There’s kind of this disconnect," Snow says. "This weird 'Uncanny Valley of News' when it’s brought to you by a source that is not remaining impartial or that has a clear marketing objective. But if it’s sponsored entertainment or sponsored education or sponsored expertise in some sort of knowledge transfer or whatever, that’s a different thing. People don’t freak out about it."

Those are fair points. If I read a Buzzfeed post about celebrity puppies, then discover it was written by Purina, do I trust it less than if it was written by a Buzzfeed staffer?

"You might trust it more," Snow says.

Another teachable moment for the industry came when the National Security Agency paid to have a job listing posted as an article on Gigaom -- a tech blog that should be reporting on the NSA, not taking money from it.

"It violated everything that you should be thinking about as a publisher," Slaughter said, "in terms of what you put in front of your readers, what you cover, whether your readership should trust you, all of these things. My jaw hit the floor."

Unlike the Atlantic's Scientology post and Verizon's SugarString, that post is still live.

Just another revenue stream

Maintaining reader trust, while immensely important, is only one issue news outlets face when they bank heavily on sponsored content. Perhaps the more urgent concern is that brands are beginning to doubt the value of posting on a site they don't own, even one that draws massive traffic like Buzzfeed or Huffington Post. Slaughter tells me that 80 percent of Contently's business comes from brands that post to their own publications -- and he only expects that percentage to grow.

So where does that leave news organizations? For a while it was trendy to say native advertising was destined to "save" journalism. But while Snow and Slaughter are obviously bullish on sponsored content in general, they believe that native ads on news sites are about to plateau, or even drop off.

"Old Spice can do sponsored posts on Buzzfeed all day long," Snow says. "But Buzzfeed owns the branding at the end of the day, and they own the audience. But if you can shift that to bringing people to Old Spice, to the Old Spice Magazine or wherever that content lives in your territory, you have more transparencies. People know that it’s you. There’s less, sort of, 'Oh I feel betrayed because I just found out this is by a brand not by a media company.' I think you also have more control over what happens next. You get the subscribers, build more of a relationship with them. Eventually you want them to become customers or advocates or whatever by building your own publication."

Slaughter is more blunt about sponsored content's inability to "save" journalism, uttering the four words nobody wants to hear when discussing the precarious economics of news:

"It’s another revenue stream."

That's the news business in the digital age: No silver bullets, always just "another revenue stream."

"I think ad agencies probably have a lot to fear from media companies"

So if content marketing won't save journalism, did legendary newspapers like the New York Times strike a deal with the devil for nothing? And without this revenue, won't it be even harder for outlets to afford to cover hard news stories that only journalists should handle? Like Snow said himself, nobody wants a reporter from Doritos embedded with a Syrian refugee convoy. As for people who trust technology and innovation to save journalism, you can forget about Snow Fall -- sorry kids, those interactive toys are for brands only. And if you're "lucky" enough to be one of the handful of journalists still left standing, it's puppy posts all the way down for you. You can pick up your check from Purina.

At the center of it all -- despite their sanctified talk of loving "stories" and "journalism," despite their expansive code of ethics, despite Kafka -- there's Snow and Slaughter. Aren't they the ones responsible for this dark Doritos puppy future?

Maybe, but the duo hopes this dystopian destiny can be avoided. And so they've mapped out a very different roadmap for media companies -- one where news organizations have something much more valuable to offer brands than mere pixel space on their sites.

"There’s things that traditional publishers are good at, that they can win in the market," Snow says. "And those have to do with being really great at publishing, having deep expertise in a subject matter, and having trust in that subject matter," Snow says. "And often it’s tools that they build to be better at publishing. I think all three of those things can be monetized in helping brands become their own publishers. So you see Complex and VICE building publications for brands, acting as creative agencies. I think ad agencies probably have a lot to fear from media companies using those assets that they have to build publications for brands on their own."

News outlets building entire sites for brands? Many would argue that's even worse than giving a handful of URLs over to branded content.

But what if product teams alone -- not journalists or editors -- worked with brands on this content, shielding editorial staffers from advertising interests and thus maintaining the proverbial "separation between church and state"?

"I think this idea that product is like a shared resource, in kind of a neutral ground between edit and advertising, is a really cool and simple-to-digest concept," Slaughter says. "And everyone sort of wins that way."

Moreover, if a brand hosts this content on an entirely different site -- again, most of Contently's clients already do -- the editorial team is even more insulated.

But doesn't that defeat the purpose of sponsored content which, if we've learned anything from John Oliver, is to trick consumers into believing that an ad is a legitimate news story?

After observing the New York Times' product team at work, Slaughter realized that when brands mimic a specific news outlet's design it's not only a potential betrayal of reader trust -- it's bad business.

"The key that I thought was so interesting was that the [Times'] sponsored stuff doesn’t look like the editorial," Slaughter said. "If it looks too much like the editorial, they’ve done it wrong. Which I thought is like, 'That’s so simple, duh of course.' No one should actually want it to look like the editorial. Brands don’t really win that way either. This idea of trying to pass your branded sponsored content off as the same stuff that your edit team does..."

"Something that doesn't give your brand credit," Snow adds.

"I don’t get it," says Slaughter. "And you look at Buzzfeed, and it’s like they keep making their disclosures smaller and smaller, and it’s like, 'Why are they doing that? What’s the point?'”

"Would you hire a writer who had done content for Walmart?"

When evaluating whether a piece of sponsored content is acceptable or skeezy, most discussions center on whether it betrays the trust of the reader, and whether it tarnishes the reputation of a news outlet.

But what about the writers, many of whom are just getting started in media and living one ramen packet to the next? Will accepting a content marketing gig ruin a kid's chances at ever working for the New York Times? And if so, why should a young writer be punished for trying to put food on the table?

To hear Snow and Slaughter tell it, writing copy for, say, Walmart won't banish you from the world of Real Serious Journalism™. But it's not without its risks.

"I ended up talking to a bunch of journalism ethicists and standards editors and people like that when I was working on the code of ethics," Snow says. "And the conversation that sticks out was with Phil Corbett from the New York Times, who’s the Standards Editor. I asked him, 'Would you hire a writer who had done content for Walmart on staff at the New York Times, assuming they were otherwise qualified?'

"He said that the litmus test would be the same as if they had been a checker at Walmart -- that, essentially, you’ve done work for a brand, for a company you might be covering in your beat, and that is going to raise some flags. But the question is going to be, are you upfront with your editors about it, where does your loyalty lie, how much time has it been, were you their head of PR or their chief evangelist, or were you doing kind of, like, labor?"

Of course, every hiring editor is different. And even if a writer didn't shape a brand's PR strategy and simply followed orders (or did "labor," as Snow puts it), some might argue that writing copy about the greatness of Walmart is a bit more problematic for a journalist than having worked as a cashier. Furthermore, while Contently has ethics practices in place that allow writers to remove their names from an article if a brand changes the copy without the author's approval, not all content marketing outfits offer those protections.

But as the stigma against content marketing continues to fade, so do those anxieties, Slaughter says.

"I would say it’s night and day from where it was 18 months ago."

So is sponsored content ruining journalism?

Without a doubt, there are certain pieces of sponsored content that are unhealthy for journalism. These are the mock news stories on otherwise legitimate sites, appended with tiny brand disclosures all the way at the bottom of the pages. There are also certain clients that, no matter how tastefully the content they've sponsored is presented, threaten the legitimacy of a news organization by mere association -- like the NSA or the Church of Scientology.

But to be fair, there's a lot of non-branded content that isn't healthy for journalism, either. The hatereads, the clickbait, the trollpieces... Is Buzzfeed's "10 Summer Emoji That Should Definitely Exist," which was sponsored by Starbucks, really more harmful to society than the New York Post's "Hey, ladies — catcalls are flattering! Deal with it,” which, what it lacked in branding it made up for in sheer offensiveness? I'll take a tasteful and fully-disclosed piece of content marketing that seeks to minimize grossness for everyone involved, over half of the "legitimate journalism" published in the NY Post or on Thought Catalog.

But is Contently merely the best of the worst? The one-eyed king in the land of the blind?

To Contently's credit, it does more than simply "not actively destroy journalism." It works to promote investigative reporting through the Contently Foundation, which it launched last July. The Foundation is a non-profit that functions separately from Contently, but is funded by Contently's profits and donations. It publishes serious -- and seriously good -- longform pieces of independent journalism on subjects like police surveillance and arms trading.

"[It's] fueled by, essentially, corporate responsibility," Snow says. "So, Contently’s making money. Instead of planting trees we’re going to donate to journalism, which is something we care about. And part of the meta point we’re trying to make is that corporations spend $15 billion a year planting trees and cleaning up highways. If they purport to care about their communities, there’s a good case for them to donate to non-profit investigative journalism -- no strings attached."

There will always be people who become uncomfortable when the line between editorial and advertising is even slightly smudged -- as they should. The new digital vanguard may dismiss these complaints as the hopeless ramblings of old media dinosaurs, but these dinosaurs do more than anybody to keep the industry honest.

That said, when people reject sponsored content solely on the grounds that it violates the separation of "church and state," there's a risk that news organizations -- as long as they avoid the bogeyman of sponsored content -- will think they're safe from any and all conflicts of interests. But news organizations are never completely safe from conflicts of interest, and that's been true for decades. (Do you really believe big money advertisers never made demands of editorial staffers before the Internet?) In truth, the ideal model for sponsored content -- the one Contently evangelizes -- where brands live on their own platforms and work closely with a news outlet's product team as opposed to its editorial team, is far less unsettling than a lot of traditional ad buys.

Or maybe I've just been taken in by Kafka. There's at least one thing I'm certain of after meeting with Snow and Slaughter, however: Not all sponsored content is created equal. And when we paint it all with the same brush, treating every piece of sponsored content, innocuous or otherwise, like another nail in journalism's coffin, it threatens to give the really bad actors a free pass. Because if it's all as bad as John Oliver says it is, who cares who's the worst?

But these distinctions matter. That may put editorial staffers in an awkward position -- after all, "brands" and "branded content" should be the last thing on a journalist's mind. Yet if you work in media, you owe it to yourself and your readers to be able to differentiate the not-so-good sponsored content from the horrifyingly unethical sponsored content. Because like it or not, sponsored content is here to stay. It won't save journalism, but that doesn't mean we have to let it destroy it, either. And while the ethically-minded, harm-minimizing sponsored content that Contently produces won't ruin the field we love so much, if we're not careful the really bad stuff might.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]