For the past year, Roll Call, a newspaper and website that focuses on Capitol Hill politics, has been in a state of flux. Last July, CQ Roll Call, the publication’s parent company, laid off 30 employees. In mid-November, the site stopped charging for digital subscriptions. And as Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple reported in January, Roll Call’s ongoing struggle to compete with rival news outlets such as Politico has forced it to adjust its editorial strategy. During the 2012 campaign, for example, Roll Call did more direct reporting on the presidential election, moving away from its traditional emphasis on congressional races.
The most recent change came on June 30, when RollCall.com joined BuzzFeed, Quartz, and TheAtlantic.com (among others) on the list of news sites that run so-called “native advertisements”—ads that resemble their journalism alongside their journalism. Roll Call.com’s “sponsored content” appears on a new blog called “Topic A: Defense,” which covers military and defense news. The blog’s sponsor is Boeing, the second biggest defense contractor in the world as of 2011.
Topic A will eventually expand to other policy areas. Beth Bronder, the senior vice president and publisher of CQ Roll Call, mentioned energy, health care, and transportation as “obvious choices” for other subjects. Each policy area will have its own sponsor and, like Boeing, the other sponsors will be associated with the subject at hand. (Both Boeing and CQ Roll Call declined to comment on the value of the company’s sponsorship.)
Some minds might recoil at the thought of an energy blog sponsored by, and featuring content from, say, ExxonMobil, but Bronder sees it as a way to “enhance the reader experience.” She explained: “What you want to do is have content that [the sponsor] would be providing that would be relevant to the content that you have in your own arsenal.” She envisions the reader scrolling down the page and, instead of being distracted by garish advertisements, thinking, “news story, news story, news story, news story.”
But if that sounds like the point is to blur the line between advertisements and news stories, Bronder is quick to dispute that suggestion. “We’ve labeled it very clearly,” she pointed out. Boeing’s posts on Topic A are identified as “Sponsor Content” in hard-to-miss red letters above the headline, and they are bylined “By Boeing.” (On Wednesday, a glitch in the site’s system was causing the blog’s editors to be listed as authors of the sponsor posts; it has since been fixed.) On the blog’s home page, sponsor posts display the Boeing logo. Taegan Goddard, who edits the blog along with Chris Riback, added via email, “We’ve even put code in the page to make sure Google and other search engines never index them like news articles.”
Other outlets have not been so fastidious. On BuzzFeed, native advertisements take the form of the site’s trademark lists; Google displays them as if they were regular articles. And while the posts feature the paying company’s name and a small logo in the byline field, they do not explicitly say they are “advertisements” or even “sponsored content.”
Roll Call’s approach also steers clear of some other practices derided by critics of native advertising. Among those critics is the prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan, who has denounced advertising that is “crafted in-house by the publication for clients and that is designed to look almost exactly like a regular editorial page.” In the case of Topic A, Boeing’s content is written by Boeing employees, not Roll Call journalists. (According to Roll Call editor David Rapp, there are no plans to incorporate sponsored content onto the main website.)
Given the steps Roll Call has taken to distinguish Boeing’s posts from its journalists’, Bronder said, the onus is on readers to notice which posts are ads and to determine what information is valuable to them. She professed confidence that Roll Call readers are up to the task. “I believe that our readership is more sophisticated than average,” she said.
Riback, one of the blog’s editors, said he does not think the concept of sponsored content should be controversial. “The key to sponsored content is the same as any content—are you writing or editing or producing something that an audience finds useful, engaging and interesting?” he wrote via email.
“Content has always been supported by advertising. It still is,” he added. “This is just an additional form, which when done clearly and transparently, can provide benefit for the readers and advertisers.”
There’s a question, though, about whether even relatively transparent disclosures can maintain a clear distinction between advertising and editorial. Other than the labels, Boeing’s ads look like the other posts and are written in a journalistic tone. As the Post’s Erik Wemple observed via email: “If you scroll from top to bottom, a sort of content-consuming hypnosis can easily set in, and you can start scanning a sponsored post without intending to. That’s precisely, of course, what the advertiser wants.”
There are also questions—which would apply even without the existence of “native advertising”—about whether the reliance on a single sponsor with a financial interest in the subject being covered might influence the blog’s coverage. Wemple, the media critic, warns that the partnership with Boeing could test the editors’ mettle. “The ubiquity of the sponsorship signage yields very frequent reminders to the blogger just where his compensation is coming from, at least in part,” he noted. “Meaning: It’ll take a strong-willed newsperson to carry on in an evenhanded manner.”
He admitted, “I’d freak out a bit if my blog were sponsored by NBC News or The New York Times.”
Goddard expressed no concern on this point. “We’ve…never had any conflict with the sponsor,” he said. Most of the posts on Topic A aggregate other defense coverage from around the Web, including Roll Call’s main site. “We would not hesitate to write about the sponsor if they were the subject of any criticism,” Goddard said.
He acknowledged, though, that Boeing’s money is vital to the project. “There are very few places where you can find the latest national security and defense policy news freely available,” Goddard said. “It’s not exactly a mainstream topic, but the sponsor makes this venture possible.”
That means that the blogs will likely last only as long as Boeing and other sponsors believe they are getting their money’s worth—from the sponsored posts, and the broader Topic A enterprise.