The wall between editorial and advertising is crumbling

Have you ever been reading a magazine article about a travel destination and then noticed right across the page an advertisement for a restaurant or shop mentioned in that article? Coincidence? Not at all. Once upon a time, when the Internet was only an engineer’s dream, there seemed to be an impermeable wall between editorial and advertising in newspapers and magazines. Not only did editorial and advertising staff work in different parts of the building, but the work they produced had nothing to do with each other. If somebody wanted to advertise, they should pay for it, we said.

How many times as a reporter and editor did I tell people I didn’t care who did or did not buy ads; we would print the news and features we wanted to print. I was naive, of course. There have always been unwritten rules about offending advertisers. If the Ford dealership purchased a full-page ad in every issue, we were not going to publish a negative story about the Ford dealership. If the manager of the Ford dealership called the editor looking for an article about some new service or charity event, a story would be written and published. After all, those ads were paying the bills. But it was subtle.

Also subtle were the so-called “guides” we published in a magazine I once edited. Still naive,  I was appalled to learn that the only companies listed in the monthly gift, restaurant, honeymoon destination or preschool guides were the ones that bought ads in the magazine. As a reader, I might figure this was a complete and unbiased list I could use to make decisions, but no. In fact, my job – which I didn’t keep for long – required me to get the wording for every listing approved by the companies featured. It was sheer advertising disguised as editorial.

There’s even a type of article called advertorial. I used to write those for the local daily. The pay, which came from the advertising department, was great. Most of the articles went into special sections on topics like weddings or home improvement. Lots of ads, lots of related stories mentioning lots of advertisers. I was lucky to have a good editor who insisted on real, well-researched articles, but still, it was advertising.

The wall between the two has gotten so  transparent it’s more like a chain-link fence with big holes. Many magazine articles are nothing but thinly veiled advertising. The same applies on the Internet. We are bombarded with advertising not only in the editorial content but in the ads that pop up right over the top of the content we thought we wanted to read. And have you noticed when you Google something, that you start getting ads about whatever you were searching for?

I still believe editorial and advertising should be separate. As a reader, please be aware that what you read may be influenced by advertising. As a writer, do your own research. Don’t accept whatever you see in print or online as fact. Please try to write your own truth without worrying about selling a product.

How do you feel about all of this? Have you experienced a crossover between editorial  and advertising? Does it matter?

Now go write–and don’t worry about money.

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