I’m glad E.B. White is dead.
The New Yorker staff writer and author of Charlotte’s Web famously wrote an impassioned warning against sponsored content in 1976. I wouldn’t want him to see how the genre has evolved.
On the home page of the Cape Cod Times, under “More Stories,” you’ll find “Advice from a woman living with ovarian cancer,” by Jessica Levy. It looks exactly like any other Times news piece. But click on the “i” in a tiny circle above the headline and this appears: “This story is paid for by an advertiser. Members of the editorial and news staff of the USA Today Network were not involved in the creation of this content.”
That’s just one of 27 “sponsored news” stories on the Times home page.
The Boston Globe does it, too. On its home page, under “From Our Partners,” there’s “How 5 New England companies are reducing senior loneliness.” It’s not labeled “advertising” and doesn’t look like an ad. But wait — click on the little “i”: “This content was written by the advertiser,” the Globe (or somebody) explains. “The news and editorial departments of the Boston Globe had no role in its writing, production, or display.”
Journalists are constantly reminded that the public doesn’t trust us, and that we need to explain to readers why they should. The Trusting News Project gives advice on how to do that. Some of it is not bad. For example, publishers are advised to lay out the facts about who owns their publications: “Explain to your audience what being part of a chain means. Really spell it out.”
That sounds like some interesting reading.
But here’s the “sample language” recommended by the Trusting News Project to explain sponsored content: “Sponsored content is provided by another business and is not held to the standards of impartiality that our independent journalism is.”
In 1976, Esquire magazine announced a great innovation in journalism: it would publish a 23-page article by Pulitzer Prize winner Harrison Salisbury, sponsored by the Xerox Corporation, which would pay Salisbury $55,000 to write it. Esquire would pay zero — and would collect $115,000 from Xerox for ads.
The 76-year-old White, who had retired to his farm in Brooklin, Maine, was revolted by this idea. He fired off a letter to the editor of his local weekly, the Ellsworth American. The Xerox-Esquire scheme, he wrote, “charts a clear course for the erosion of the free press in America…. If magazines decide to farm out their writers to advertisers and accept the advertiser’s payment to the writer and to the magazine, then the periodicals of this country will be far down the drain and will become so fuzzy as to be indistinguishable from the controlled press in other parts of the world.”
White’s letter, amazingly, sparked a national debate. After a further exchange between White and top brass at Xerox, the corporation backed down and abandoned its plan. “He stopped us in our tracks,” Xerox’s David Curtin told the New York Times. “We have enormous respect for Mr. White and if this was unsettling to him, it was just not worth continuing it.”
We’re not accepting sponsored content. None of us should.