“There’s No Church and State Here”

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In this 24-page magazine section, schools had to pay to be written about.

By Jack Limpert

A year ago David Carr sounded the alarm about how the growing use of native advertising on websites could damage their credibility. “Now the new rage is ‘native advertising,’ which is to say advertising wearing the uniform of journalism…”

Three months ago HBO’s John Oliver did a funny, perceptive 11-minute segment on native advertising. He said, “I like to think of news and advertising as the separation of guacamole and Twizzlers. Separately they’re good. But if you mix them together, somehow you make both of them really gross.”

All mentions of native advertising remind me of the day in 1995 when a group from AOL visited The Washingtonian and we made a deal to let AOL use our restaurant reviews. During the negotiations we talked about how our reviews would be used, whether it’d be clear what was editorial and what was advertising. The top AOL guy said, “At AOL there’s no church and state.”

The future of the digital journalism?
Native advertising is just another name for the advertorial sections that many magazines once published. We stayed away from them at The Washingtonian because we were getting enough regular advertising revenue. But a lot of magazines that couldn’t sell enough ads used advertorial sections as a crutch.

At a meeting of city magazine editors, Brian Anderson of Mpls St. Paul magazine described advertorial sections as “heroin for the ad staff.” He said that once the ad people could sell ads by promising the advertiser a quasi-editorial mention, they couldn’t sell ads just based on editorial quality and readership.

In other words, the magazine had to try to con the reader to sell an ad. The magazine had to create advertorial copy that seemed enough like editorial that readers would see the mention of the advertiser and accept it as honest editorial.

More from David Carr’s column in the 9/16/13 New York Times:

“I completely understand the value of native advertising,” Mr. McCambley said, “but there are a number of publishers who are allowing P.R. firms and advertising agencies direct access to their content management systems and allowing them to publish directly to the site. I think that is a huge mistake.

“It is a very slippery slope and could kill journalism if publishers aren’t careful,” he said.

He’s right. Publishers might build a revenue ledge through innovation of the advertising format, but the confusion that makes it work often diminishes the host publication’s credibility.

Of course, some publishers have already gone flying off the edge, most notoriously The Atlantic, which in January allowed Scientology to create a post that was of a piece with the rest of the editorial content on its site, even if it was differently labeled. They got clobbered, in part because handing the keys to the car to a controversial religion with a reputation for going after journalists was dumb.

“You are gambling with the contract you have with your readers,” Mr. McCambley said. “How do I know who made the content I am looking at and what the value of the information is?”
I was reminded of all this by today’s Washington Post Magazine—it has a well-designed 24-page section headlined “Finding the Perfect Fit.” It promises to help Washington area parents choose the right private school, pointing out that “choosing the right institution for your child can seem daunting.” The section goes on tell the reader about “Surfing for Schools” and “Taking a Tour” and “Decision Time” and “Strategies for Getting In.”

Top people from 11 private schools are quoted. Any of the quotes from people at the private schools considered the area’s best—National Cathedral, St. Albans, Sidwell Friends, Potomac, Georgetown Day, Maret, Holton-Arms? No, those schools didn’t buy an ad.

Every school mentioned in the section paid to be there. In the Post’s defense, there is a small “Advertisement” slug at the top of each page and at the section’s end there’s a small note: “This special advertising section was produced by the Washington Post Custom Content Department and did not involve the Washington Post news or editorial staff.”

Okay, the Post’s editors are tough on church and state and today’s advertorial section isn’t as bad as some of them. But the newspaper’s publisher and ad salespeople—and the paper’s private school advertisers—are hoping that Post readers might buy what is in today’s “Finding a Perfect Fit” section as the real thing.


  1. A reader asks about kitchen design ads in the Washingtonian’s October issue and wonders if those ads also are native advertising:

    “Doesn’t your old magazine, the Washingtonian, blur the church/state divide when it runs a paid ad headlined ‘Custom Home Builders Directory’ adjoining editorial matter about designing kitchens, as it does in its October, 2014 issue? Its ‘Kitchen Help’ article carries a list of cabinet and kitchen designers. Can anyone not be suspicious when he finds a company called Kitchen and Bath Studios listed among ‘designers who can create a beautiful space’ in the editorial copy on page 157, then finds a half-page ad from Kitchen and Bath Studios on page 158? Isn’t this breathtakingly close to ‘native advertising’?”

    My answer:

    “In the Washingtonian’s kitchen section, the editorial copy was created independently of advertising—some companies that got an editorial mention ran an ad, but many who got editorial mentions did not advertise. A company did not have to buy an ad to get editorial coverage. And the ads run by kitchen designers looked like ads, not like a slightly altered version of editorial.

    “The Washington Post private school section was set up to look like editorial and the only schools mentioned in the quasi-editorial copy had to pay to be included. That’s native advertising.

    “You ask if the Kitchen and Bath Studios ad in the October Washingtonian isn’t close to being native advertising. No. By your logic, if the Washingtonian wrote an article about kitchen design, it then would have to refuse ads from any companies mentioned in the story. The key is the separation of church and state—the editorial staff is independent of the advertising staff.

    “Magazines that publish advertorial sections will argue that they make clear to the reader that the section is advertising. See the small “Advertising” at the top of each page and the small disclaimer saying the editorial department had nothing to do with this. That’s their fig leaf.

    “But when they sell the ads in an advertorial section, and when businesses buy an ad in an advertorial section, the assumption and hope is that most readers will not grasp that what looks a lot like editorial really isn’t.”

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