Media outlets these days can't get enough of sponsored content, or stories paid for and often written by advertisers in the style of actual articles. The outlets get paid and the brands get exposure. Everybody wins, except maybe the readers, who often feel duped into reading something that's really an ad. It all hinges on one thing: disclosure.
(Update: The Freep editors responded on Twitter and said this was "simply human error." They have since deleted the post.)
Case in point, two Gannett-owned newspapers recently ran the same piece of sponsored content: an article called "Car buyers test-drive dealers on social media."
There's a good chance you don't care whether car dealers can get people to like their Facebook pages or not, but at least USA Today told you ahead of time that the article is sponsored so you can really, really not care. That's a kindness the Detroit Free Press seemingly didn't do for its readers.
The USA Today piece has a disclaimer at the top and bottom saying it's a sponsored post "provided and presented by our sponsor"; the Freep's identical piece doesn't. What gives?
At the bottom of the USA Today post, readers get this disclaimer:
This is part of the "Leaders in Local" series highlighting successful local businesses across the country. "Leaders in Local" is provided and presented by G/O Digital; the series offers advice on the ever-growing usage of mobile, digital and social media marketing. G/O Digital partners with more than 5,000 of the nation's top brands and retailers and is a one-stop shop for local digital marketing.
On the Freep story... nothing. There's nothing there to indicate the story is a sponsored post and even the byline — By Amanda MacArthur, G/O Digital (via USA TODAY) — makes you think it came from a legitimate source.
(For the record, Gawker Media sites run sponsored posts, often done by our in-house ad people, but we say whether they're sponsored or not.)
Is this an unforgivable breach of trust by an institution whose mission is centered around transparency and accountability? No, but it's something that should be disclosed, and it shows the slippery-slope nature of sponsored content. See how easy it is to disguise a paid advertisement as something written by an actual journalist? How do you know where your "news" is coming from?
Granted, this is a pretty harmless story, and a boring one most people won't bother to read. But it's awfully strange that its sponsored nature wasn't disclosed to readers. I'm willing to bet it was an accident, something that comes down the pipeline from a Gannett server and goes up automatically.
If that's the case, the Freep and similar newspapers need a better way of making people aware of what these stories really are: ads.
We've reached out to the Freep's editors for comment and will update if we get a response.