December 6, 2017
Will bribes from brands influence the future of online journalism?
by Ryan Harrington
It’s a lonely life, the blogger’s. It is rarely glamorous, or remunerative. All of this perhaps makes its disciples prone to temptation.
This week, Jon Christian, writing for the The Outline—an online tech and culture publication—published the fruits of his investigation into one such temptation: in which bloggers accept bribes from publicists in exchange for coverage of newly-launched products. In the record industry this is called “payola,” with label execs standing in for the marketers here, and radio DJs for the bloggers.
Christian writes of the surprisingly widespread (if almost always fireable) practice:
People involved with the payoffs are extremely reluctant to discuss them, but four contributing writers to prominent publications including Mashable, Inc, Business Insider, and Entrepreneur told me they have personally accepted payments in exchange for weaving promotional references to brands into their work on those sites. Two of the writers acknowledged they have taken part in the scheme for years, on behalf of many brands.
While this type of marketing-via-journalism is often painfully transparent, writers try to cover their tracks by linking product mentions to studies (presumably with data that supports their article’s more general argument), or isolating an aspect of the promoted item as a small detail building toward a larger, separate, argument. And some writers defend the practice, arguing that editors at posts-per-minute publications like Fast Company and Huffington Post simply pay too little (if at all) to keep writers away from this side-hustle. Publicity firms sometimes funnel the funds through personal PayPal accounts to keep things looking squeaky clean.
Some sites already have publicist-access systems in place, though it’s more pay-to-play than straight bribery. Christian says of Forbes, for instance: “A program called CommunityVoice, described in an editors’ note on certain articles, invites ‘senior-level technology executives’ to pay an annual fee in exchange for being allowed to publish to the site.”
Content like this, along with advertiser-sponsored articles in the New York Times and promoted tweets, seems to be the runaway trend in marketing. If you have any details about the dark side of that world (though show me the light side, won’t you?) you can contact jonchristian at protonmail dot com, who will be continuing the investigation for The Outline.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.