In a blow for journalism purists, The NY Times' sponsored content is as popular as its editorial

By James Robinson , written on May 14, 2014

From The News Desk

At this morning’s American Association of Advertising Agencies’ public relations forum, the New York Times’ executive vice president of advertising Meredith Levien threw a cat in with the pigeons.

The Times’ sponsored content (or ‘native advertising’ depending on your preference for buzzwords) was performing roughly as well as its editorial content, Levien said. In some cases, much better. The newspaper’s interactive feature for the Winter Olympic games in Sochi, produced with United Airlines, was viewed nearly 200,000 times, far superseding a typical editorial piece. Its paid post program launched in January and it has signed on eight advertisers, with more set to join shortly.

Levien’s remarks will inevitably serve as proof for fans of sponsored content and those who consider it the intellectual apocalypse, that their side is in the right. There are two groups of people with nothing in common who have their arms in the air right now yelling "I told you so."

It has long been said that audiences will see right through any media outlet that publishes sponsored content in an attempt to firm up its business model. For those struggling for a steady stream of advertising revenue online, the New York Times’ experience shows that sponsored content isn’t a deal with the devil set to send audience’s running.

People like Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti or Vox’s Jim Bankoff have made the case that sponsored content doesn’t make journalism worse, it makes advertising better. Levien has now added her voice to that chorus. The New York Times wasn’t just selling advertisers its audience, she said, but also its storytelling skills to help them make more meaningful messages. There’s no consensus yet about the quality of engagement with these posts, but it’s becoming clear that people are clicking on it.

There’s another group of people whose shoulders will sink a little further at Levien’s news, however.

“It’s hard to read the latest gimmick for infusing a dying industry with cash as anything other than journalism selling its soul,” The Guardian weighed in about native advertising in February.

For this set, the idea that audiences not only weren’t sent for the hills, but actually liked what they were reading will compound fears for the future of the industry. If the Chief Revenue Officers of the world are right and paid content can find an audience, what future does journalism have at all?

“Let’s make no bones about it: The purpose is deception, in the hope that the reader will invest the content with the same credibility and authority of a news report,” journalism professor Anton Harber wrote in Business Day.