Jacob Lauing is a journalism senior and Mustang Media Group’s sponsored content director.
Native advertising is controversial. It’s new, it’s hot, and you’ve seen it before.
It looks like this.
Or maybe this.
And this year at Mustang News, it’s going to look something like this.
Native advertising refers to stories sponsored by a business, and is intended to look like standard editorial content. Mustang News has experimented with native advertising (which includes both sponsored/branded content) a bit in the past, but not with the focus we’ll apply this year.
And trust me, as Mustang News’ former editor-in-chief, I understand why it’s controversial. Sponsored content feels sneaky. It feels unethical, and it feels ingenuine. So I’m here — as Mustang Media Group’s first-ever sponsored content director — to help ease your concerns. And because sponsored content is so closely related to editorial content, incumbent editor-in-chief Kayla Missman is here to do the same.
Here are our thoughts on native advertising, and what you should expect from Mustang News this year.
In defense of native
I’m not overstating when I say people hate native, particularly old-school legacy media lovers (see John Oliver’s rant). I’ve sat in workshops with newspaper editors yelling about why sponsored content is wrong, even as native advocates tried to calm them down.
I am one of those advocates, so if you find yourself feeling uneasy about sponsored content, let me tell you why I believe in it.
The digital age has been a playground bully, holding advertisers and media organizations by their legs and shaking every dime from their pockets. I’ll quote a professor of mine who put it beautifully: “The news industry doesn’t have an audience problem, it has an advertising problem.” (That same professor has done a lot of research on native advertising, and wrote an excellent article this past month, if you’re interested in learning more).
Just as new technologies have challenged journalists to tell stories in different ways, the Internet has given advertisers the chance to be innovative. And that’s where native comes in.
It’s controversial and currently ill-defined, yes. But it just might be how digital media finds its footing again.
Having been a Mustang News staff member for three years now, I’d say innovation is one of our defining qualities. Since its rebrand in 2013, Mustang News has challenged every precedent set by previous years. One of Kayla’s favorite principles is risk-taking. We’re students. We’re young and stupid, and we’re learning. So why not take some risks?
Native advertising is a risk, but that’s why it’s perfect for Mustang News — we pride ourselves on leaps of faith.
This is a work in progress
Starting something new means nothing is set in stone. This entire school year will be spent building a proper model for native advertising, tweaking, hiring, trying and failing. I don’t want to appear hypocritical if a policy changes or we contradict ourselves, because the only way this will work is through trial and error.
So bear with us. This idea is going to take time to perfect, and things will change.
Transparency is crucial
If sneakiness is one of native advertising’s qualms, then I want to be as transparent as possible. As you can see in the example embedded above, every sponsored post will be labeled, both in the headline and below the featured image.
We want to make sure readers know when a post is paid for.
And in the spirit of transparency, I want everyone to know that Cal Poly Corporation (Campus Dining, University Store, etc.) will be our guinea pig client this fall — all of our native content will be “sponsored by Cal Poly Corporation,” as the posts will read. We will be expanding with other clients later on in the school year as we nail down the proper model and workflow.
Sorry, cat lovers
This is the point I really want to stress — sponsored content will still be quality content.
Too many times I’ve seen sponsored stories that don’t measure up to the editorial content of a media outlet. *Queue BuzzFeed ‘Cats who need fall right meow’ link.* I’m not saying our native content won’t be enjoyable. But as a former editor-in-chief, I know what a quality, publishable story looks like. And I’m saying our sponsored content is going to be good — every post will be consistent with Mustang News’ editorial quality standards, and its promise of delivering content with value.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the New York Times, who published a paid post on women inmates last year. Now this is a beautiful, quality, well-researched and well-executed story. And yes, it was paid for by Netflix, who likely wants to show its interest in the issue as ‘Orange is the New Black’ soars in popularity. Yet, there’s no direct promo for the show.
Stories are stories. And if they all are offering some value to readers, it shouldn’t matter whether or not it’s paid for.
Some of your biggest concerns with sponsored content probably relate to the fading editorial vs. advertising line that’s been in newsroom for years. So with that, I’ll let the editorial expert take over.
The editor’s perspective
Kayla Missman is a journalism senior and Mustang News’ editor-in-chief.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of sponsored content. If you told me a year ago that Mustang Media Group would be pursuing a native advertising model, I would’ve fought it. But after long conversations, hours of research and time to form my own opinion, I’ve concluded that native ads aren’t the end of journalism as we know it.
So trust me — I know that it can be confusing to learn about and see native advertisements. But let’s keep an open mind.
Advertising and journalism have always had a codependent relationship — realistically, we wouldn’t have the media organization we do without the strength of our advertising, marketing and distribution teams. They do hard work, and we appreciate it.
It’s important to keep in mind that native advertising is just that: advertising. It isn’t content created by anyone on the Mustang News staff.
Let me walk you through the process. Our ad reps are assigned local districts, where they speak to business owners and sell them advertisements. This year, one of the options for advertisements will be sponsored content. These will be designed, if you will, by Jacob and those on his team, just as any ad in the newspaper would be created by the advertising designers.
The editorial team doesn’t sell them, create them or touch them.
The not-selling part is crucial here. Native advertisements have zero connection to our editorial content or editorial operation. When you send story ideas, emails or pitches to me, we consider them separate from any advertisements, as we always have. The option for native advertisements is never on our table—it doesn’t factor into the decision process whatsoever. We make our decisions based on newsworthiness, entertainment value and staff restrictions, not based on what will make us the most money.
The prominence of native advertising can be nerve-wracking, I know. But you can feel confident that we at Mustang News will continue to provide informative, interesting content that is relevant to you, our audience. Our decisions will not be influenced by the possibility of advertisements of any kind, as we’ve maintained for the past 100 years.