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Confessions of a sponsored content writer

Recently, I landed the tech-journalism equivalent of a Thomas Pynchon interview: I got someone from Twitter to answer my call. Notorious for keeping its communications department locked up tight, Twitter is not only the psychic bellwether and newswire for the media industry, but also a stingy interview-granter, especially now that it’s floundering with poor profits, executive turnover, and a toxic culture. I’ve tried to get them on the record before. No one has replied.

This time, though, a senior executive from one of Twitter’s key divisions seemed happy—eager, even—to talk with me, and for as long as I wanted. You might even say he prattled. I was a little stunned: I’d been writing about tech matters for years as a freelance journalist, and this was far more access than I was used to receiving. What was different? I was calling as a reporter—but not exactly. I was writing a story for The Atlantic—but not for the news division. Instead, I was working for a moneymaking wing of The Atlantic called Re:think, and I was writing sponsored content.

In case you haven’t heard, journalism is now in perpetual crisis, and conditions are increasingly surreal. The fate of the controversialists at Gawker rests on a delayed jury trial over a Hulk Hogan sex tape. Newspapers publish directly to Facebook, and Snapchat hires journalists away from CNN. Last year, the Pulitzer Prizes doubled as the irony awards; one winner in the local reporting category, it emerged, had left his newspaper job months earlier for a better paying gig in PR. “Is there a future in journalism and writing and the Internet?” Choire Sicha, cofounder of The Awl, wrote last January. “Haha, FUCK no, not really.” Even those who have kept their jobs in journalism, he explained, can’t say what they might be doing, or where, in a few years’ time. Disruption clouds the future even as it holds it up for worship.

But for every crisis in every industry, a potential savior emerges. And in journalism, the latest candidate is sponsored content.

Also called native advertising, sponsored content borrows the look, the name recognition, and even the staff of its host publication to push brand messages on unsuspecting viewers. Forget old-fashioned banner ads, those most reviled of early Internet artifacts. This is vertically integrated, barely disclaimed content marketing, and it’s here to solve journalism’s cash flow problem, or so we’re told. “15 Reasons Your Next Vacation Needs to Be in SW Florida,” went a recent BuzzFeed headline—just another listicle crying out for eyeballs on an overcrowded homepage, except this one had a tiny yellow sidebar to announce, in a sneaky whisper, “Promoted by the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.”

Advertorials are what we expect out of BuzzFeed, the ur-source of digital doggerel and the first media company to open its own in-house studio—a sort of mini Saatchi & Saatchi—to build “original, custom content” for brands. But now legacy publishers are following BuzzFeed’s lead, heeding the call of the digital co-marketers and starting in-house sponsored content shops of their own. CNN opened one last spring, and its keepers, with nary a trace of self-awareness, dubbed it Courageous. The New York Times has T Brand Studio (clients include Dell, Shell, and Goldman Sachs), the S. I. Newhouse empire has something called 23 Stories by Condé Nast, and The Atlantic has Re:think. As the breathless barkers who sell the stuff will tell you, sponsored content has something for everyone. Brands get their exposure, publishers get their bankroll, freelancer reporters get some work on the side, and readers get advertising that goes down exceptionally easy—if they even notice they’re seeing an ad at all.

The promise is that quality promotional content will sit cheek-by-jowl with traditional journalism, aping its style and leveraging its prestige without undermining its credibility.

The problem, as I learned all too quickly when I wrote my sponsored story for The Atlantic (paid for by a prominent tech multinational), is that the line between what’s sponsored and what isn’t—between advertising and journalism—has already been rubbed away. Whether it can be redrawn will depend less on the hand-wringing of professional idealists and more on the wavering resolve of an industry that, hearing chronic news of the apocalypse, has begun to quake and ask, Is it too late to convert?

Like Pigs to Sponsors

It was money that got me into the sponsored content racket.

As a freelance journalist, you learn, with a great deal of self-loathing, to follow the scent of cash. Every so often, a writer friend stumbles upon a startup, or a journal backed by a well-heeled foundation, and a flag goes up: there’s money here! And off we stampede, like hogs snuffling through the underbrush in search of truffles, pitching and writing until the funds dry up or an editor gets laid off.

A while ago, one of those signals came wafting over from The Atlantic’s sponsored content shop. Like many of these upstart projects, Re:think has a roster of full-time employees—designers, editors, programmers—but it also relies on freelance writers to get the job done. (Think Lena Dunham’s character on Girls, cranking out Neiman Marcus–branded stories for GQ.)

It is a strange thing to identify yourself as a journalist
and then ask someone to
comment for an ad you’re creating.

I wasn’t exactly sold on the idea of sponsored content, much less the spotty record of Re:think, which began with a gaffe and a whimper in 2013. Among its first clients was the Church of Scientology—“David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year,” went the headline—and The Atlantic’s “creative marketing group” has been recovering from that embarrassment ever since.

But my new Atlantic contact gave me the lowdown: the magazine was looking to expand its sponsored offerings, and it would pay obscenely well—up to $4 per word in some cases, a rate that can be found these days only at the glossiest of glossy mags.

I had written a few pieces for The Atlantic’s website before, at the measly rate of $150 each. Now I was in line for up to forty times that, if only I could twist my journalistic skills to what was essentially reported copywriting.

Perhaps best of all, I wouldn’t have to use my byline.

Naturally, I said yes.

Soon I was meeting my contact, who had the title of integrated marketing manager, at a Union Square coffee shop. I was delighted—few editors have ever asked me out for coffee, which may say as much about my personal charms as it does about their harried schedules. The marketing manager, whom I’ll call Alex, was a pleasant, smart guy in his mid-twenties with an editorial background. He understood why writers like me would be doing this work and why we might feel a little sheepish about it (none of his previous contributors had used a byline, he told me). Advertisers would have some say over the final product, but their involvement would be “minimal.”

Within days I had signed on to do an article sponsored by IBM. The piece would involve “reporting,” and the goal was to achieve the look, feel, and mannerisms of a bona fide Atlantic story—except maybe with fancier graphics. The story was supposed to trumpet the merits of Watson, IBM’s heavily promoted super-computer, and its new partnership with Twitter. Specifically, I was charged with disclosing the ways in which Watson, by analyzing real-time data piped in from Twitter, would soon revolutionize the future of news.

I dove in gamely, wearing my reporter’s face. Alex took the lead, booking me phone interviews with vice presidents of IBM and Twitter, who were exceedingly accommodating. In exchange for access, though, I got instructions. I was required to submit some questions in advance of each interview, and company PR reps would sit in on the calls.

It was clear that all parties—The Atlantic, IBM, Twitter, and especially me, with my reservations about taking the assignment in the first place—wanted this exercise to resemble real journalism. The trouble was, none of the VPs I interviewed seemed to grasp the meaning of “news,” much less what all their high-level info-crunching might have to do with its future. Instead, my interviewees talked, with excitement and eloquence, about the sheer amount of data being transmitted, the raw power of IBM’s analytics software, and possible applications for big business. (If you want to know what people in Peoria think about your new basketball shoe, the Watson supercomputer is your guy.)

The closest we got to something useful was when a Twitter executive speculated that in the aftermath of a disaster, emergency services might scan tweets to see where help is needed. However aligned our purposes—in this case, promoting the Twitter and IBM brands—we were speaking two different languages. I had been tasked with writing a story that didn’t exist.

Freelancing is a miserable hustle, one that few people pursue by choice, and with an estimated one-third of American workers now swelling the ranks of the precariously employed, journalists can claim no special privilege in their anhedonia. (It’s a different kind of privilege—occasional infusions of parental generosity; a spouse with a steady job; an improbable, and briefly lucrative, run as a game-show contestant—that has allowed me to stay in this game for so long.) I considered punting the assignment. But my spouse had recently quit work to return to graduate school, and I found myself in the familiar too-afraid-to-look-at-my-account-balance zone, with no shortage of investigative stories to pitch, but no editors willing to pay me for them.

So I kept at it, digging around a bit more to see if any media companies were doing interesting work with Twitter. (Few were, it seemed, despite the data journalism fad sweeping the industry.) I asked a contact at Nieman Lab, a journalism think tank, if she had any thoughts, but mostly we ended up talking about the peculiarities of sponsored content. It is indeed a strange thing to identify yourself as a journalist and then ask someone to comment for an ad you’re creating.

But I’m a writer, I thought. Whipping nothing into something is what I do! Remembering that this was an advertisement, I set aside years of techno-skepticism, channeled the fawning credulousness of a TechCrunch-style puff piece, and wrote in my most chipper, optimistic voice. I dropped in some references to Dataminr, Vocativ, and other data-driven journalism projects, but for the most part I strung together quotations from my interviews and stuck to a fan-fiction script. Since we were talking about the “future” of news, it all seemed inherently speculative anyway. (What was the future but a set of informed guesses that would never be questioned or compared against the eventual outcome?) Within a few days, I managed to put together a readable draft. I figured I had done a reasonable job—certainly I had presented IBM and Twitter in a positive light—and maybe, just possibly, earned my ample fee.

Things hit a snag, though, when the Re:think team brought in a ringer: a longtime editor who, I was told, had overseen a well-known news magazine during its “heyday.” He would help shepherd the article, or ad, or whatever it was, to completion. While Alex had been genial, this journalistic veteran played in a different key. (Any time someone’s first message opens with the words “please don’t react to the length of this email,” you know you’re in for something real.) The article needed work, he said. But what kind of work wasn’t clear.

I began to wonder if, like me, this veteran editor was just trying to earn his fee. How much was he making, I wondered? How much does an editor who presided over an industry’s golden age receive to consult for the same industry during its hospice years? Did he hate himself too, at least a little bit, for using his decades of expertise to gin up propaganda for corporations that, were he to approach them as a journalist, would shoo him away with a curt “no comment”?

My questions became nagging anxieties and then, over the next few nights, a full-blown existential crisis. I was a month away from the release of my first book, a critical treatment of the big tech companies and the world they’ve made for us, and here I was sweating over an assignment glorifying some of those same companies. And I couldn’t even figure out how to do it properly! I had the impression, common to many anxiety sufferers, that my problems were self-made but also eminently real. This sentiment merged with a number of other ugly feelings—my disgust toward the media establishment, my distaste for advertising, my profound frustration with the older editor, my fear that I would be grinding out bullshit work like this for the rest of my days—until I thought that I just couldn’t do it. I began to wonder how I would explain to my spouse that, because I couldn’t finish this assignment, we would have to change our names and move to a foreign country. It all made a kind of sense.

In a tidier narrative, I would say that this was when I stumbled upon some epiphanic moment, either converting to the sacred cause of content marketing or storming off the assignment in a righteous airing of my principles. But the truth is more banal. For a few days, I paced my apartment, smoking a healthy amount of weed, racking my paranoiac’s brain to figure out how I could possibly—in the words of the consulting editor—“square this circle.” The editor kept after me for a new draft of the article, and finally, on a cold Saturday, after receiving his third email of the day, I sat down, banged it out, and filed.

Media companies hail their “brand sponsors” and “featured partners” as if they were journalistic saviors instead
of Typhoid Marys.

Several weeks went by, and I heard nothing. I wondered if I had blown my easy paycheck and they had moved on without me. I wrote to the consulting editor and asked about the article. “It’s live!” he said. He didn’t have a link, but it was online, somewhere. We’d done it, I guess.

I found the article, dressed up with a lush design meant to obscure its mealy content, under the headline (writ large) “The Race to Probe the Twittersphere” and the disclaimer (writ small) “sponsor content.” The Atlantic’s logo nodded its approval from the top of the page.

The text mostly resembled the last draft I had sent, with a few flourishes and anecdotes thrown in. It was, I thought, nothing special and barely worth the trouble. It’s the kind of work that one should do simply for the money, without looking for any higher meaning. Neurotics, or purists, need not apply.

I submitted some paperwork, and a month later, a check arrived for $2,000. Except for my book advance, it was the most I had ever received for a single piece of writing.

Firewall, Farewell

Such is the anticlimax of sponsored content: it promises to know the future of news, but in the end, all it’s got is cash (and vaguely aspirational brand messaging). Sure, native ads may be sleeker and slightly more substantial than annoying buy-now banner spots, but there’s no panacea here for journalism—no corrective to the vapid advertising of the past, no white knight for anxious legacy publications trying to get the Internet right, no savvy compromise that will cede part of a media company’s soul to keep the rest of it (namely, the news division) pristine and intact.

Far from it. Because who would bother pitching a story to The Atlantic for $100 when you could pitch yourself as a copywriter and make twenty times as much? And why would a Fortune 500 executive respond to a journalist’s questions when he could just hire The Atlantic to produce a glittering, 1,200-word advertorial instead and then buy some promoted tweets to ensure it racks up shares?

The notion that a publication could sell access to its editorial style without also changing the terms of journalistic access itself is laughable. While the Times insists that it maintains a strict firewall between its T Brand Studio and its hallowed newsroom (“The news and editorial staffs of the New York Times had no role in this post’s preparation,” goes a typical disclaimer), other publishers make overlap a featured selling point. When Condé Nast opened its sponsored content shop, it promised marketers “access to our unparalleled editorial assets.” Even the venerable Guardian traffics in two tiers of payola—“supported by” and “paid content/paid for by”—with each reflecting a different level of editorial independence, advertiser participation, and other possible outside funding. These deals have produced strange results, like a “Shell and Working Mums partner zone”—a clutch of puff pieces sponsored by a noted polluter and published in a newspaper known for its vocal fossil-fuel divestment campaign.

Vice, which is known as much for its marketing arm as for its neo-gonzo journalism, has reportedly spiked news stories for fear of offending its brand sponsors. The same goes for BuzzFeed, whose staffers pass effortlessly from its advertising division to its editorial division.

If you’re able to coax a candid reply from an editor who works for, perhaps, a conglomerate comprising a movie studio, a struggling stable of magazines, and several other conflicts of interest waiting to happen, you’re likely to hear tales of panicked phone calls from marketing managers asking if that snarky four-hundred-word blog post is really worth risking the $1 million ad buy under way a few doors down. (The inevitable answer: of course it isn’t; delete the post and live to fight another day.)

Last spring, the American Society of Magazine Editors relaxed its guidelines for native advertising, changing “Don’t Ask Editors to Write Ads” to something resembling a wink and a nod: “Editors should avoid working with and reporting on the same marketer.” So much for the firewall.

These challenges, of course, aren’t entirely new. In his book Media Freedom, Richard Barbrook writes that during France’s Third Republic, “both national and local newspapers sold ‘editorial advertising’ to interested companies or governments.” Bribes were regularly exchanged. “Because publishing was a business,” Barbrook writes, “newspaper-owners were as interested in selling their products to advertisers as to their readers.” Plus ça change.

But as journalists imitate advertisers and advertisers imitate (and hire) journalists, they are converging on a shared style and sensibility. Newsfeeds and timelines become constant streams of media—a mutating mass of useless lists, videos, GIFs, viral schlock, service journalism, catchy charts, and other modular material that travels easily on social networks—all of it shorn of context. Who paid for this article, why am I seeing it, am I supposed to be entertained or convinced to buy something? The answers to these questions are all cordoned off behind the algorithmic curtain.

Access Swapping, Mattress Hopping

I should have emerged from my sponsored content gig with the kind of relieved rededication to my craft that would overcome, say, a new driver reeling from the adrenaline surge of his first head-on near-miss. Instead, though, my tour of the sponsored content waterfront permanently altered my own vision of journalism’s future—and not at all in a good way.

Consider the example of Maxim, a former lad mag now trying to reinvent itself as something more respectable—GQ lite, perhaps, or something like the old Details. Maxim may not be anyone’s pinnacle of taste, but it’s an interesting reclamation project with several things going in its favor: brand recognition; the hiring of Kate Lanphear, a respected editor from the Times’ style magazine, as editor in chief; and a built-in base of luxury advertisers. Recently, Maxim has staffed up, given its writers travel budgets and room to go after weightier fare, and revamped its covers in a more tasteful style, photographing models from the neck up. (One issue featured Idris Elba, who is a man, making him unique in Maxim cover history.)

If the old Maxim was unabashedly brand-friendly, the new Maxim has simply doubled down on the posture, furnishing its readers with bottomless cocktails of content about gadgets, cars, clothes, and other indulgences that tend to come with free samples, sumptuous photo packages, and referral links to online stores.

Last year, according to a source at the magazine, the editorial team was flooded with attention from a PR firm hired by Casper, a “mattress startup” backed by celebrity investors and a vigorous marketing campaign. Casper sent a number of free mattresses to the Maxim staff, some of whom duly took them home. There was nothing unusual about that: the magazine even has a swag table where unclaimed gifts are up for grabs. “It is literally insane, the amount of shit they throw at editors,” says the insider. “We’re talking thousands of dollars, the amount of free stuff that a single editor can get in a year.” An eighty-inch Vizio television, for example, arrived, gratis, in the Maxim offices; it was addressed to a departed staffer and no one was quite sure what to do with it.

Because it’s a venture-capital-funded company, valuing growth above profit, Casper can afford to spend lavishly on product sample giveaways for potentially influential fans, whether they’re magazine journalists or Kylie Jenner, who once Instagrammed a photo of her Casper mattress. My Maxim source mentioned that colleagues at BuzzFeed also received free mattresses last year—and in February, BuzzFeed published a sponsored post authored by Casper, followed in March and June by glowing reports about the company, one written by a freelancer, the other by a BuzzFeed staffer. As the staffer’s article noted, BuzzFeed and Casper “share some investors.”

In the case of Maxim, Casper naturally hoped for something in return for its largesse. After the mattresses went mostly unreturned (one of the company’s selling points is that you can send back a mattress you don’t like), a PR rep began probing Maxim, asking where the coverage was. The site’s editorial director asked a gathering of staffers if any of them had accepted the free mattresses. About ten hands went up, representing nearly $10,000 in gifts. That was too much, the editorial director decided. They would have to write an article. Eventually, the site published a Q&A with one of Casper’s founders.

It probably didn’t matter to the innovators at Casper that they had doled out so much money for what was essentially one web article. The VC-backed company was looking to create brand awareness through any method possible, and as the Maxim source told me, merely getting Maxim’s journalists to use its product was itself considered a win. Now Casper had “ten people who go to bed every night working for what’s essentially a consumer propaganda machine, saying, ‘Oh, I fucking love this mattress.’”

On the face of it, this is a familiar tale: wherever free product samples appear, positive coverage is not far behind. But there’s an added twist. In addition to its giveaway initiative, Casper had a little something going on the side. After the mattress haul, three Maxim staffers were approached by the same PR firm to find out if they wanted to interview for positions at Van Winkle’s, a new website dedicated to “smarter sleep and wakefulness.” In May, Matt Berical, a Maxim editor, decided to jump ship for the new venture.[*] It is not immediately clear who sponsors, but if you poke around, you’ll land on a familiar name: “Van Winkle’s is published,” says the site’s About page, “by Casper Sleep, Inc.”

Too Many Salmons

And so it is that American journalism, in this late decadent phase, has come to mistake its biggest rivals for its dearest sponsors. Now that visibility, which can be bought like so many ad impressions, is won by gaming search and social platforms, publishers are no longer just hosting or appeasing advertisers; they are also competing with them. They are employing the same sponsor-pleasing jargon, vying for the same resource—attention—in the same newsfeeds and timelines, and scouting the same talent. Last year, Starbucks tapped Rajiv Chandrasekaran, an award-winning Washington Post reporter, to lead a media company. Rhapsody, a new literary magazine produced by United Airlines, is wooing top-shelf writers. Meanwhile, much as the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and the Times rush to release articles to Facebook Instant without seeming to care that Facebook is in the process of consolidating its own publishing monopoly, media companies hail their “brand sponsors” and “featured partners” as if they were journalistic saviors instead of Typhoid Marys.

Maybe the key to all this rudderless and frenzied market obsequity resides in the simple realization that the media business is no longer a business. Instead, it’s a line item for a cable conglomerate, a confidence game played with venture capitalists, a glamour object for a newly moneyed twenty-eight-year-old tycoon, a passport to power for a foreign oligarch. Or more to the point, it’s simply content—culture’s Astroturf—around which increasingly sophisticated advertising may be targeted until no one, not even its creators, can tell the two apart.

Yet it’s hard not to think that, despite all of the industry’s failures, despite its own self-imposed deathwatch, journalism may still have a future.

The truth, after all, is that there is money in journalism. It’s just woefully misallocated, doled out according to a stars-and-scrubs model that rewards brand-name journalists no one’s ever heard of outside of New York. Meanwhile, a mass of freelancers—whose work is necessary to the functioning of many publications—cadge whatever assignments they can and don’t complain when the checks take six months to arrive. A great deal more cash is wasted on outside consultants, events, quixotic reporting trips, redesigns, and other ventures that may please advertisers or middle managers but do little for readers. Recent high-profile failures include Chris Hughes’s attempt to reinvent The New Republic—a $20 million outlay that, according to reports, was mostly spent on office space, interior decorating, consultants, and lavish parties.[**] Racket and Ratter, two well-funded journalism startups, folded after publishing little, or in the former’s case, nothing at all. ESPN, despite its boundless resources, shuttered Grantland, its beloved outlet for literary sports journalism and pop culture coverage, and bungled the launch of The Undefeated, a black-interest site, firing founding editor Jason Whitlock, whose long history of public histrionics (and no history of managing anyone) had augured poorly from the start, or so it had seemed to anyone outside of ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. In their numbing waste of talent, attention, and money, these stumbles recall the demise of Portfolio and Talk, nine-figure failures that came to symbolize an earlier era of bubble thinking.

The truth, after all, is
that there is money
in journalism. It’s just
woefully misallocated.

Apart from these emblematic cases, we generally learn how corrupt this industry is only on the rare occasion when some company is forced to open its books or when a former Time magazine intern, for instance, tells you that Charles Krauthammer used to get $7,000 per column. After Tina Brown left The Daily Beast, I finally learned why, in years of writing for them, I could never get more than $250 for an article: she spent it all.

Not long ago, Felix Salmon, one such brand-name journalist working for Fusion, a media startup flush with buzz and cash but short on readership, published a meandering post that asked a simple question: “Is there any such thing as a career in digital journalism?” His answer was the same as Choire Sicha’s: no, not really. And he very well may be right. But Salmon left out an important detail: his salary is rumored to be $250,000. So my answer to his question is this: not as long as digital journalism employs people like Felix Salmon.

For that amount of money, you could hire five smart thirty-year-old writers, especially if you’re not drafting through the traditional Ivy League patronage system. You could pay a bunch of writers to actually write.

Alternatively, with the same cash outlay, you could consign them to the remunerative banality of sponsored content, which might pose the greatest threat, in the end, to young journalists. Do the math: Why pay for a journalism conference when you could attend “Food, from Farm to Table,” hosted by the National Press Foundation and funded by Monsanto? From there, it’s just a skip and a jump over to

As of now, there’s a glut of young writers circling, anxiously wondering if they’ll ever have more to show at the end of a year than a bunch of 1099s, double Social Security tax, and a few new Twitter followers. If journalism hopes to recuperate itself as a viable career, it will have to find a way to let some of these people in and to keep those who want to stay. Otherwise, the advertisers wait, and their pocketbooks are bigger.


[*] Amidst this turnover, Sardar Biglari, Maxim’s owner, canned Lanphear, appointed himself editor in chief, and started putting naked women on the cover again. Biglari also sued a former employee for telling a tabloid journalist that the bossman had been a creep during a photoshoot—that Biglari insisted on appearing in—with supermodel Alessandra Ambrosio.

[**] It probably wasn’t spent on writers. After Hughes’s purchase, I was offered a lower rate for freelance work than I had received under the ancien régime.