Can Condé Nast Win at Native Advertising by Breaking Down the Church/State Wall?

For publishers, the decision of whether to involve editorial staffers in the production of native advertising poses a big dilemma.

By having staff writers and editors work too closely with the advertising department, media outlets risk corrupting the objectivity of their editorial content and, in the process, eroding the public’s trust of their reporting.

On the other hand, excluding the editorial department from the advertising process can lead to sponsored stories that do not mirror the look and feel of content found elsewhere on a publisher’s website. Without this, the “native” aspect of the stories advertisers are paying a premium for is negated—bad news for an editorial department dependent on advertising revenue to fund their content.

Magazine giant Condé Nast brought this balancing act into sharp relief Monday when it announced the creation of 23 Stories, a new branded content studio that will allow advertisers to work directly with its publications’ editors on native ads.

Not surprisingly, the move was jeered by many members of the journalism establishment. Media critic Jack Shafer, for example, told Digiday that Condé Nast was “debasing” its editorial content to bolster its advertising.

Shafer has a point, as this erosion of the so-called “church and state” separation between advertising and editorial certainly creates the potential for conflicts of interest at Condé Nast’s influential publications, which include GQ, The New Yorker, and Vogue.

For instance, what would happen if an editor were to find herself in a position where she needed to edit a news story about a company she had previously worked with for a native advertising piece? Considering that companies tend to choose publications with an audience that care about their products or services, it’s a situation that’s more than likely to occur.

John Miller, president of the content marketing agency Scribewise, which is a division of Trellist, points out that the separation of church and state has never been absolute—newspaper reporters have always know which advertisers were funding their work—but adds that the close relationship between brands and editors at 23 Studios will require Condé Nast management to monitor the situation closely in order to preserve its editorial integrity.

“I think it makes a lot of sense from a consumer experience viewpoint, but from a journalistic standpoint, it’s something that requires vigilance from not just the editors, but from readers and watchdog groups,” said Miller.

Of course, Condé Nast must have been well aware of these issues when it made the decision to integrate its editors into 23 Stories.

Indeed, concerns about the effect of sponsored content on journalistic credibility have sprung up at virtually every legacy media organization that has embraced native advertising, a group that includes The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Hearst Corporation, the latter of which involves editorial staffers in some branded projects as well.

In moving forward with 23 Studios, Condé Nast is betting that any inconveniences stemming from these concerns will be outweighed by the increased value it can provide to advertisers in making its editorial teams available.

Doing so will give brands access to editors who are experienced in creating stories that work for their specific audiences, and who can serve as a sounding board for advertisers who are unsure as to how to strike a tone that allows their content to blend in with the publication’s editorial aesthetic.

In addition, Miller points out that these relationships could also serve as a form of quality control for Condé Nast’s native content, as editors will be in a better position to prevent advertising from running sponsored stories that do not meet the standards regular editorial content is held to.

But while he feels that the involvement of journalists will allow 23 Studios to improve the quality of its work, Miller says reader trust is the most valuable asset Condé Nast has—the success or failure of its new venture will hinge on whether the company’s publications are able to keep that trust.

“Today, [Condé Nast is] more attractive to advertisers because they can walk in and say, ‘You’re going to have awesome content and you’re going to have our world-class editors involved,’ and what more could I want if I’m a brand?” says Miller. “But if they lose the trust of their audience and that audience diminishes, then they become less attractive.”

Image by JeremyWhat

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