As I begin to wind down my native advertising fellowship with the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (but by no means my blogging here), I’ve turned my attention to the ethics involved in creating a successful program at a newspaper.

At the Dissecting Engagement conference held by RJI last month at the Missouri School of Journalism, I gave a presentation on how editorial staffers could ethically create native advertising. This is what we’ve been doing at the Faribault (Minn.) Daily News for the past eight months.

Before I won the fellowship to create and implement the native advertising program at this 5,000 circulation, five-days-a-week paper in Southern Minnesota, I was its managing editor.

As anyone who has ever worked at a small-town paper knows, the ME is more than just an ME. You’re also a coach, copy editor, photographer, reporter, editorial page editor and page designer when it calls for it. I was no different; my fingerprints were all over our paper.

To disengage with the newsroom was a necessity as I began creating native advertising, but to what degree? The task force we convened to implement our program agreed there were certain lines that couldn’t be crossed. I couldn’t assign stories or set the budget for the next day’s print edition, for example. I also couldn’t line edit stories when they came in. Those became the duties of another managing editor at a sister paper.

But that left quite a bit that I still could do. I could still coach reporters and help them improve their skills. I could still manage the paper’s website and social media platforms. I could still help reporters find resources for their work. So I took on those roles not only for my paper, but for the editor of our sister paper who had taken on the duties I could not do.

To disengage with the newsroom was a necessity as I began creating native advertising, but to what degree? The task force we convened to implement our program agreed there were certain lines that couldn’t be crossed.

As the months have passed, I have found myself wondering why newsroom staff couldn’t do native advertising. A discussion with a mentor of mine who is a publisher at a much larger daily cemented my theory: Strong reporters who have clear guidelines by which to operate and who know how to say “no” can create native advertising. Here’s how:

  • Include your newsroom staff in the process of integrating native advertising production into their work. Assure them that the same standards apply to native advertising as they do to any other story they’re working on.
  • Certain beats will lend themselves better to writing native advertising than others. Stay away from the ones that may do stories about the clients who also seek native advertising.
  • Build clear guidelines on who controls the content and how changes to that content will be made. At the Faribault Daily News, we told all our native advertising clients that we owned and controlled the content. You might think clients would have a problem with that but they didn’t once they saw the content was of the same high quality as our regular news stories.
  • Be willing to revisit and/or challenge some of the ethical guidelines that have been a constant in our industry but may be outdated. A big one for me is the idea that you can’t share copy with a source before publication. I share all my native advertising work with my clients before publication. Stories can be complicated and sharing them with sources before publication ensures greater accuracy. Of course with that comes the temptation of a source to ask for other changes that have nothing to do with accuracy. My clients all know that I will not change quotes, nor will I adjust any part of a native piece for any reason other than accuracy, grammar and AP style. Reporters who can stick to that rule -- and say “no” to a client when needed -- can write native advertising. Those who can’t, shouldn’t (and maybe they shouldn’t be a reporter, either, but that’s a blog for another time).

I am not alone in the feeling that newsrooms can ethically participate in native advertising. Recently the American Society of Magazine Editors updated its guidelines to say that editors should not work with and report on the same marketers. Common sense, really.

On April 15, Conde Nast, which owns a stable of magazines including Vanity Fair, GQ and Wired, announced the creation of “23 Stories by Conde Nast,” a branded content studio where magazine editors will work with brands on sponsored content.

Others whose editorial staffs have also done native advertising work range from the UK’s Daily Mail, to Hearst Magazines to millennial enterprise news site mic.

Closer to home, at least in circulation, the South Bend Tribune in Indiana was ahead of the curve when it produced a special section more than a year ago on the Affordable Care Act in partnership with a local hospital. Newsroom staffers contributed content to the section. Publisher Kim Wilson told NetNewsCheck’s Michael Depp that she thinks editorial and advertising working together to explore new revenue streams is “important.”

I agree and would even go one step further. Exploring, defining and growing the editorial-advertising partnership is critical to newspapers’ future success. Reader revenue is another important area that requires an editorial-advertising partnership. I’m sure still others will arise in the future.

Soon, very soon, the old models will no longer provide our industry with the revenue it needs to thrive or survive. Native advertising is a model worth exploring.

Jaci Smith  
Institutional fellowship project lead


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