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The Real Fake News Part 2: The Evolution of Contributed Content in Journalism

Kayla Retzler,  Matthew Luongo

The first post in our series, The Real Fake News, dealt primarily with vanity—the awards, events and superficial results that can make a client look good on the surface, but ultimately have very little impact. Why? Because there’s little-to-no audience reading these publications.

However, there are also well-known, respected media outlets with millions of readers that are also playing in an ethically grey area: the increasingly popular “contributor networks.” The concept essentially gives experts (i.e. company executives, analysts, consultants, entrepreneurs) the freedom to post under the publisher’s name. Once granted contributor status, all posts are labeled as such in their byline; paid journalists at the outlet are labeled as Staff. However, the average news reader often doesn’t understand or notice the difference.

Over the past 15 years, more than half the jobs in the news industry have disappeared. While this means smaller newsrooms, it also means different newsrooms. Take a look at this strategy plan from tronc, the nation’s third largest publisher, from a recent investor conference:

Source: SeekingAlpha

The pyramid on this slide places high-quality content from the editorial team on top, supported by expanding layers of partner content, expert contributor content and niche contributor content. In theory, this should work well: expensive editorial teams will define the publisher brand and publish "the news" as we know it. Meanwhile, industry experts operating on a more independent basis will fill the site with free content while promoting the publication and boosting page-views and impressions to support ad inventory on the business side of the publication. To the news consumer, it's all the same. To the journalists, they still have a (paid!) job. And to the experts, they build their personal brands while sharing niche industry knowledge. Win-win-win, right?

Mostly. We think that contributor networks are a net positive to the industry. They bring industry-level knowledge to niche and mass audiences alike and can unveil the curtain in various industries. We have worked with contributors at publications ranging from digital-first outlets to top-tier print publications, and the vast majority are fantastic to work with and adhere to strict journalistic rigor. We wouldn't want them to go away.

The problem is that some contributors have been found to be using their editorial platforms to shill certain companies and / or individuals, receiving payment in return. This not only leads to compromised content, but also less opportunity for PR professionals to pitch their own experts. This quid pro quo relationship is not how the news should work, and it damages the already-eroding trust consumers have in the news media.

By nature, it is more difficult to hold individual contributors to the same standard as full-time reporters and editors. Once an individual has secured a "contributor" page or title, they are often able to publish content directly onto a platform with limited and sometimes no third-party review or fact-check. These individuals are often also business owners or industry veterans, and they are accustomed to operating under a different set of rules than reporters and editors.

As every PR professional knows, every mention, reference and quote in a news article is prime real estate—an opportunity won or lost. Our job is to encourage reporters to include our clients as those mentions and quotes. It's an honest transaction that follows journalistic ethics and can also advance clients' goals.

Bought earned media spots should be a paradox – but there are cases where it’s not. And every PR agency, client and professional must decide whether or not these pay-for-play earned media mentions are worth the ethical and reputational risk.

The final segment in this blog series will investigate best practices in dealing with these contemporary PR “techniques.” In the meantime, we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments below or on social @ProsekPR. 

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