Can you be sure the piece you’re reading online these days is totally unbiased? Does it matter?

Increasingly web-only publishers don’t seem to care. At all. Forbes.com is a really interesting example. They’ve developed a whole new program called Brand Voice. It allows brands to publish their own content right there on the Forbes.com website with – as far as I can tell - no intervention at all. (There is a selection process to begin with, but then they can just publish with no oversight.)

More than this… if people are reading these pieces and liking them, they get shown alongside ‘normal’ editorial in the ‘Most Read on Forbes’ trending box. According to this really interesting post on Forbes.com

Their content rises and falls on merit, just as it does for staffers and contributors.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about this, both as a journalist and as a reader. All I can say is I ‘think’ this piece is an example of the Brand Voice content… and I struggle tell the difference. It looks identical. It is signposted at the top of the piece. And… at the moment the link to the explanatory page about the Brand Voice concept is um, broken.  (click 'What is this?' to see what I mean)

Forbes Brand Voice: Connecting marketers to the Forbes audience. What is this?

Buzzfeed is another oft quoted example of a publisher going down this route. But perhaps a little surprisingly the signposting with this example in partnership with the Economist is much more explicit (ie better?) And then there’s Quartz. I can’t for the life of me find a story written by a brand on there. But it’s certainly  happening. Does that mean I didn’t find any… or is the distinction so blurred it’s impossible to tell?

In a business to business environment this kind of thing feels totally fine and is pretty common. You get the CEO of say a major travel company writing his weekly column for Travel Weekly - and it has been like this for years. (But it does tend to be a column). How about Tyler Brule writing his regular column for the FT when he also happens to be the driving force behind Monocle magazine? So what? No big deal.

But these examples above feel more out there. I’m convinced that the Forbes model in particular is blurring the line between editorial content written by journalists in the employ of the publisher and content written on behalf of sponsors so much people will  very quickly forget all about it and read one piece just like any other. Except it isn't. One piece has been paid for by a company that wants ultimately to influence you to buy their stuff, not by an impartial journalist who will try and show both sides of a story.

I think it’s particularly concerning that there’s apparently little or no editorial control. The crowd just decides whether they ‘like’ a piece enough for it to trend and thus get read by more people. It 'rises and falls on  merit'. (What the heck does that mean?) And, how easy could it be to influence that little algorithm if you wanted to - vote it up by getting a bunch of people to rate it?

People often bemoan the death of the writer in the wild world of web, but for me it’s the death of the editor that’s perhaps even more concerning. Editorial oversight – to ensure quality, accuracy, lack of bias and appropriateness for an audience. It's all being totally cast off.

What do you think?

Pic by Photojohnny

7 thoughts on “Goodbye ads and editorial – welcome the new edvertorial

  1. In the world of the self-publishing internet the old model of the editor as quality gatekeeper is a bit redundant - which is not a worry to me as a self-publishing blogger. Presumably Forbes has something in place to prevent real drivel getting published on their site. For publishers I can see they get the benefit of loads of reasonable quality free content which will improve their traffic and advertising revenue. I'm not sure the general internet-cruising reader will notice the difference in quality if there is any.

    1. Hi Heather
      Thanks for commenting! I think Stu's point below is the pertinent response. If you don't have a gatekeeper how can you be sure it's not biassed? Sure it could be well written and researched and so absolutely, readers won't care... but what if it's spinning a particular line, avoiding certain parts of the argument to give a particular take? That's the issue.

  2. Hm.

    "Rises and falls on merit" =/= "Rises and falls on traffic"

    And the real issue isn't quality. It's impartiality. Copywriting is very often of the highest quality.

  3. Great as per Jeremy. Couple of things...

    Personally I usually duck out at Forbes with that annoying as hell first ad (Stop it!).

    I wonder if these resources had been around in 1984 if Union Carbide post Bhopal would have hired the best pro writers in the world to, ahem, spin for them then whack it about the net. That's when impartiality comes into its own. Ho hum.

    This is worth a read (you've probably read it) when it comes to reputation management
    I wonder what Mr Mayfield would say to the above...

    Ethics. It's all about ethics. Maybe folks don't care anymore

  4. There are plenty of pieces that surface in HuffPo's travel section that are essentially PR driven dribble with property links aplenty. One PR agency which specialises in lux properties in SEA is a standout case. Are these marked as advertorial? No. In some cases the pieces are written by staff writers, others by bloggers/freelancers who are paid by the link, or occasionally by the piece. It's partly dishonest play by the agency but also abject laziness on HP's behalf plus does the writer no favours.

    Easiest solution is not to read HP - works for me. :)

    1. Absolutely. Something that gives me hope is that if these big traffic chasing free to read publishers keep polluting their offering with junk like this to make quick bucks, ultimately more savvy readers will understand the value of quality and think more seriously about how they choose what to read and perhaps even consider paying for it.

  5. Very interesting piece, Jeremy.

    Personally, I still believe in the role of the publisher, (no matter if a self-publication or one belonging to a large media group) as a gatekeeper for quality and, most of all, fairness.

    However, I'm afraid things are much more complex. I stopped believing in the accuracy, ethics and lack of biais from most newspapers and magazines long before the rise of the web. While there's a small amount of high quality content, a lot is driven by advertising spending, even if the publisher will swear the contrary. If, for example, you have a big cruising company buying lots of advertising pages in a travel magazine throughout the year, I bet there will be at least an article highlighting the best of the cruising company, and no criticism at all.

    Whenever there is money involved - no matter if online or offline - there's the risk of a biased article.

    In the end, I guess it's a matter of ethics from the publishers and of maturity from the readers. This latter point is what most scares me. Too many people are too lazy, and prefer taking shortcuts, avoiding to think about what they read (or hear or see, for that matter) and to question themselves on the objectivity.

    I don't know which one came first, but I believe that there's low quality publishing because there are low quality readers (or maybe it's the other way round).

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