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PRCA Tech Group on The Future Of Tech Journalism and the rise of advertorial

Posted by Alex Perryman on 1st December 2015

Last week Nelson Bostock played host to the latest of the PRCA Tech Group’s talks on the future of Tech Journalism. In attendance were Charles Arthur, Guardian freelancer, Alex Wood of The Memo, Sam Shead of Business Insider, and Hannah Bouckley of BT’s publishing arm. And a very interesting talk it was too.

It seemed to me that the speakers rapidly found some consensus: Generally, it felt to me that it was heavily hinted that concepts of ‘integrity’ in the journalistic world are loosening up. This is so as to accommodate the new economic realities (and difficulties) of being a journalist in the 2010s.

The new normal?

A lot of the discussion that took place implicitly took the form of ‘Devil’s Advocate’ argument. Nevertheless, to my eyes, the presenters (and particularly those from the larger publications) seemed surprisingly resigned to the notion that biased reporting, owner-informed agendas, and, in particular, advertorial, are increasing in prominence. It was heavily implied that these are becoming an increasingly inevitable fact of life in the media, and readers simply need to learn to negotiate past them.

Of course, this wasn’t an absolute argument; it was more the feeling I carried away from the talk: Advertorial is a growing concern, but no-one was arguing it was the be-all and end-all. Good journalists, it’s argued, will always find room for high-quality investigative reporting around the increasing amount of paid-for reporting that newspapers are turning out to pay the bills.

The argument also goes that, as a result of this increasing exposure to paid-for content, audiences are becoming more adept at manoeuvring past advertorial and clickbait. The increasing amount of advertorial in play is also leading to a natural evolution whereby advertorial must, inevitably, become more useful and readable.

Good argument. Unfortunately it rang a little hollow.

A poor medium?

Compere Ben Rooney of the Wall Street Journal displayed a multimedia Google Nest infographic discussing house fires. Here was advertorial, Ben argued, that was informative, entertaining, and well presented.

Yet as the audience argued, engaging and well written or not, this piece was also massively biased. It overlooked huge swathes of information that traditional reporting would not have, in order to steer the reader towards just one product. The overall effect felt manipulative. As Alex Wood refreshingly opined, advertorial ‘is lipstick on a pig’.

So why did I get the feeling that Charles and Ben seemed to be acting as apologists for the advertorial medium? Perhaps because large publications like The Guardian or Wall Street Journal have the capacity to ‘pad’ advertorial with high-quality editorial, and their reach will also be more attractive to advertisers. From that point of view it would be easy to understand why they might be in the mood to defend advertorial. It arguably also makes sense for smaller publications like The Memo to take a more critical stance as they strive to build their editorial reputation.

Of course, this is a game we’ve all been playing for years: PRs talk to journalists with an agenda, (though one that would usually then be filtered through the prism of journalists’ editorial voice). Yet at this talk one got the impression of journalists defending advertorial, which they would have rubbished years ago, as an increasingly valid and useful form of content.

Twas ever thus

Perhaps things haven’t really changed that much. After all, as Charles Arthur argues, the likes of Apple and Google stories have always risen to the top by weight of their commercial clout, interest, and ability to provide or withhold ‘favours’ or access. Advertorial, as an increasing part of the mix, is perhaps simply the most honest expression of a commercial bias that has been present in journalism for years.

However, let’s be honest with ourselves: If an increasing amount of advertorial and editorial interference is the price journalists must pay in order to continue ‘good’ journalism, so be it. But I’m not sure journalists should attempt to defend high quality advertorial as an editorially sound vehicle. Let’s call it what it is: ‘Marketing’, for the most part.

You can find out more about the PRCA Tech group, (Chaired by Wildfire’s MD Debby Penton) here. You can also follow the general PRCA account on @PRCA_UK, or follow the hashtag #PRCAtech

Alex Perryman

Alex joined Wildfire in 2007. He is renowned for his ability to pick up complex technologies and new industries extremely quickly.