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.