New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has been admirably diligent about tracking the paper’s increased reliance on native advertising to boost its digital ad revenues.

And Sullivan’s latest post is especially diligent.

 

As Print Fades, Part 4: Native Advertising on The Rise

Since the first piece of native advertising appeared in The Times almost two years ago, Meredith Kopit Levien, the chief revenue officer, has tried to walk a fine line: aggressively tapping into a promising new revenue source without breaching the wall between advertising and journalism.

On the revenue side, native advertising – which mimics the form and appearance of news content – has proven a winner. New as it is, it nevertheless accounted for 18 percent of digital advertising revenue in the third quarter this year or about $9 million; that is up from 10 percent in the second quarter. (The dollar figure is my rough calculation; The Times doesn’t break numbers out that way publicly.)

The vast majority of readers apparently find it unobjectionable.

 

Then again, some readers do.

 

[I]n recent weeks, I’ve heard from many who objected to a new display of native ads on the Times’s home page: a horizontal band labeled “Stories From Our Advertisers.” Clicking on any one of the several featured items would take you to a piece of multimedia advertising.

Dozens of readers wrote to me about it, saying they were either confused or put off by what they saw.

 

Which is this (the Times dropped the “Stories” after Sullivan started asking about the native ad display):

 

 

Sullivan notes the good work the Times has done in native advertising, “from a film shot in prisons to promote the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” to Cole Haan’s piece about ballet dancers.”

But she also notes the pitfalls:

 

Realistically, native advertising probably has to be a part of [increasing digital ad revenues], and so far, The Times is pulling it off more responsibly than most media outlets.

There is, however, an inherent problem: If native ads look too much like journalism, they damage credibility; if they look nothing like journalism, they lose their appeal to advertisers.

A fine line, indeed.

 

Good for Sullivan to draw that line.


John Carroll, who also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town, is a media analyst and mass communication professor at Boston University.
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