The New York Times unveiled a major redesign of its digital offerings Wednesday. With a new scroll feature, readers will never again have to click to read the second half of a story, and the site is crafted to appeal to a mobile audience.
But the redesign has also embraced a controversial shift in journalism: Some posts on the site that look like articles are reported and written by people working for the paper's advertisers.
The practice is sometimes called "native advertising" or "branded content," with the idea that there is actual content — maybe in the form of an article, perhaps a video — created by or for an advertiser.
"Brands have the privilege now of speaking directly to their audiences," says Stephanie Losee, a former Fortune magazine writer who is now managing editor of global communications for computer-maker Dell — and who oversees a stable of writers.
In the digital age, Losee says, advertisers have a lot of options. "Brands no longer had to rely exclusively on traditional publishers to gather audiences around content. We weren't calling it 'content' at the time, but that's what they were doing — so that brands could advertise to those audiences."
Now, Dell and other corporations will pay for articles they have commissioned to appear on The New York Times site — advertising intended to burnish awareness of a company rather than hawk its wares.
Native advertising is no longer a luxury or an experiment. Other papers are already in the game and the Times itself now derives more than half its money from subscribers.
That's thanks in part to a pay wall that requires frequent users to pay for access to the site, but also to ailing advertising revenues. Newspapers have lost ground to Twitter and Facebook and other social media platforms, where sponsored tweets and postings appear as part of a user's daily stream.
For the Times, the move has required great care. Michael Zimbalist, senior vice president for advertising products, says the paper has "put a lot of attention into how we're going to make it really clear to you, as a reader of The New York Times, that that story is in fact coming from a brand."
That begins, Zimbalist says, with the name the paper has given this content. "We arrived at the name 'paid post,' which we're very happy about."
The word "paid" underscoring that someone paid for it, and "post" suggesting that it's content that could be worthwhile.
The material from Dell appears in a typeface that's similar to the paper's articles, but as Zimbalist says, it is very clearly marked with corporate logos and the legend "paid for and posted by Dell" at the top of the page.
"Expertise can come from anywhere and the great stories can come from all sorts of unexpected places — one of those places will be from brands," Zimbalist says.
There are risks to embedding corporate content, as The Atlantic found when it posted a sponsored article from the Church of Scientology that celebrated its history — and airbrushed the many controversies that have dogged the organization.
The article seemed inconsistent with the nature of the magazine, which then promised to take greater care differentiating original and paid material.
Critics say that ambiguity is the point for many advertisers, who are willing to pay if they can borrow the reputation of the news sites where they place their ads.
But take BuzzFeed. The site's founder, Jonah Peretti, says his company's approach is inspired by the Super Bowl or fashion magazines like Vogue — without the ads, they'd be a lot less entertaining, he says.
"Some people, I think, actually don't like the fact that our ads are good quality or that their ads are interesting, particularly [when] you think about the period when newspapers were mostly monopolies and they could make a huge amount of money without ever really spending any time or attention on the advertising," Peretti says.
BuzzFeed's digital traffic now far exceeds that of The New York Times or CNN, and sponsored posts sometimes go viral too. But a reader quickly skimming them might skip by the small corporate logo and label stating the material was written by a "featured partner."
And there are echoes of past print advertising approaches here. For example, some regional newspapers farm out their real estate sections to marketing employees — not reporters — and foreign governments have paid for special sections to tout their countries. Labor unions and corporations have paid for essays to appear on opinion pages.
As The New York Times' Zimbalist says, "What's old is new again."