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Unpacking Payola Day

by Leo Schwartz

The Outline published an article last week that took many people by surprise, including (purportedly) a number of journalists. The article’s finding: many reporters for otherwise esteemed publications operate in a covert “pay-for-play” system. This includes journalists at publications such as Mashable, Inc, Business Insider, and Entrepreneur. A company called ArticleHub even claimed they could procure “brand mentions” in more than a hundred publications ranging from BuzzFeed to the New York Times in exchange for payment.

Some journalists seemed shocked, or at least outraged, like Christopher Ingraham, a data reporter at the Washington Post:

Others took the news with weary familiarity and shared stories of how they had some fun with offers for payola, like Katie Notopoulos, a tech reporter at BuzzFeed:

Unfortunately, we’ve witnessed this phenomenon for a long time. It’s most likely even more common than the Outline article details, especially at publications that rely on non-staff “contributors” like Business Insider and Forbes. As long as humans write articles, some will shirk journalistic integrity and accept payment for favorable coverage. Being a journalist at a widely read publication is too powerful a pulpit for some people to not be corrupted. If you’re ready to declare moral rot, though, consider the journalism job market according to the U.S. Department of Labor:

With that being said, the vast majority of journalists take their jobs very seriously and will be offended if you offer them money to write an article. So, as a piece of advice, don’t reach out to a reporter and ask how much an article costs, or even imply it. If you know of a certain backdoor and want to pursue it, by all means, follow your wallet. Just know the inherent risks: if the journalist is exposed, they will likely lose their job and the post will be taken down.

At this point, it’s important to make an important distinction between organic and sponsored content. What we’re referencing is sponsored content masquerading as organic content. With organic content, the understanding is that the only entity paying a journalist is the publication that employs them. Unless explicitly noted, a journalist’s articles are not sponsored by any third party, and especially not by any subjects of the article. If a journalist is being paid by someone other than their publication for an article — and the payment is not divulged in a disclaimer or a tag — that is a serious breach of ethics.

Sponsored content, on the other hand, is an accepted form of journalism. I’m not talking about social media posts by “influencers” — this is real, journalistic content paid for by brands. The distinction, though, is that every piece of “ethical” sponsored content is marked as such.

Publications will research and create content on behalf of clients, ranging from articles to videos. You might recognize this in BuzzFeed listicles which clearly have an ulterior motive and reportedly cost upwards of $100,000:

Sponsored content is not restricted to digital media publications like BuzzFeed though. Even the New York Times relies on it from unlikely sources:

We don’t necessarily recommend pursuing sponsored content. Of course, most sponsored content does not appear in outlets like BuzzFeed or the New York Times, which is dominated by large brands with great sums of cash on hand. Most companies’ realistic targets for sponsored content will be small blogs and nascent digital media properties with small readerships. We previously experimented with setting up a marketplace of sponsored content creators. What we found is that they were largely unreliable, and their audience was largely artificial. While they claimed to have 100,000+ followers on Twitter or Facebook that they could blast any articles to, the articles we paid for would only get 50–100 reads.

We no longer pitch stories as sponsored content, but instead pitch stories as organic content. Some journalists will respond with the offer of creating sponsored posts. We’re seeing this increasingly with journalists in the cryptocurrency space, who used to write posts for free but are now asking for payment:

We’ll forward these opportunities on to you, but again, sponsored content is always a risk. Just because a journalist is writing the article doesn’t mean they’ll promote it like they do with their normal content. You just have to understand that risk before you decide to pay.

If you’re doing outreach on your own, unless the reporter you’re pitching explicitly says in their bio that they accept sponsored content opportunities, always pitch them as if you’re just sharing a story they might be interested in. Never assume they produce branded sponsored content, and definitely never assume they engage in payola.

Campaign of the Month

Cuseum helps museums, public attractions, and nonprofits increase their visitor and member engagement using the power of technology. Cuseum’s software platform that makes it easy to publish mobile guides, offer digital membership cards, and generate new revenue opportunities.

We worked on a campaign with Cuseum back in August, highlighting their unique technology and partnerships with museums such as MASS MoCa and the Museum of Fine Art Houston. We targeted journalists writing about museum innovation and applications of technology in art. While we were able to garner interest from a good deal of reporters, no one wrote a story.

Cuseum just announced that they’re partnering with the Pérez Art Museum Miami on a groundbreaking augmented reality exhibition — the first of its kind to leverage Apple’s ARKit. We created an interactive media brief for the campaign which includes embedded videos and images to highlight the exhibits. Instead of only pitching Miami-based reporters, we reached out to the same pool of reporters from the previous campaign as well as expanding the pitch list to include journalists covering advances in AR.

With this new approach, we were able to procure articles in VentureBeat, Apple Insider, and 9to5Mac. Reporters from ZDNet and the Wall Street Journal both confirmed that they would visit the exhibits, and we have a number of other journalists interested in writing a story.

We always say that media outreach is an iterative process, and it’s not just a clichéd sales technique. More often than not, pitching journalists is a game of odds. They might not respond to any given pitch for a myriad of reasons, from disinterest to a busy schedule to vacation. It’s important to not give up hope after one campaign. To procure consistent coverage, we have to keep bringing journalists new stories and angles while expanding the list of who we reach out to. The more we reach out with interesting updates, the more likely journalists are to respond.

As Wayne Gretzky (or Michael Scott) once so eloquently said, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

What We’re Working On

*Rethinking the press page *Journalists are always looking for new sources and stories. The best way to help them discover your company is to create a compelling press page that lives on your website. This should include everything from basic details about your company like funding and clients to more advanced information like shareable datasets and downloadable multimedia.

Currently, there are tools out there like PRKit, but they’re labor intensive and don’t usually offer enough information to motivate journalists to find out more. We want to create a new tool that benefits both sides by allowing companies to easily set up a page that provides the information that journalists really want.

It’s still in development, but we need your help. Please fill out our short survey about your current approach to press pages. We’re working on a beta that you can try out soon!

Note: This was originally sent as our December 2017 newsletter. If you want to receive our monthly newsletter with PR tips and advice, you can *sign up here.*