No, BuzzFeed Did Not Invent Native Advertising

by Adrienne LaFrance

News curmudgeons relish blaming the internet for things they don’t like, a pastime that is maddening, a little sad, and just ironic. These people who fetishize print media’s past are often selective in their memories of it.

Published 1929

Published 1929

For instance, BuzzFeed didn’t invent coverage of silly animals, and it certainly didn’t invent native advertising — that is, advertising with a narrative structure that mirrors surrounding editorial content. (You might also call this “sponsored content” or “advertorial.”)

Much of the recent media chatter about native ads makes it sound as though sponsored content was just invented. But what we now call native advertising has deep roots in print journalism — as do aggregation, curation, and opinion-infused reporting.

I was reminded of this fact while scanning microfiche in the basement of the Hawaii State Public Library last month. I came across a 1927 edition of the Honolulu Advertiser that included an 80-page advertorial to mark the opening of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel — “Hawaii’s Greatest Hostelry,” the newspaper promised. A banner across the top of the front page: “Royal Hawaiian Hotel Edition, Illustrated, With This Issue.”

Publisher Lorrin Thurston penned a glowing review: “This is not a paid write-up nor an ad,” he wrote, “It is a sincere appreciation of, and tribute to what I consider one of the great events in Hawaiian history — the opening of the superb Royal Hawaiian Hotel at Waikiki.”

Thurston failed to mention that although his column may have been from the heart, the paper’s 80-page special section was a paid write-up, which becomes obvious only upon closer inspection.

The section is effusive in its descriptions of the hotel, detailing beautiful landscaping, high-tech elevators, the gilded dining room, a magnificent fleet of automobiles, the “most gorgeous of all” millinery shops in the lobby, the “marvel” of the hotel’s plumbing structure and the sophistication of its network of 450 telephones. Some articles have bylines, others don’t. Some are clearly marked as advertorial content, others not so much.

One huge headline stretches across two pages: “Great Hotel is Palace of Beautiful Art Treasures.” In much smaller print is Ruth Baldwin’s byline. Oh, by the way, Baldwin was the hotel’s publicity director. Fine print also reveals that a three-page story about the “power, speedy, beauty and luxury” of a ship that launched to bring tourists to the hotel was distributed by Matson, the company that owns the ship.

Buried elsewhere in the paper is an oblique characterization of the special section as a mix of stories from those “generous in providing information comprising some of its pages.” Translation: Advertisers, not reporters, wrote a bunch of these stories.

The section is also filled with plenty of traditional looking ads — including one from the newspaper congratulating the hotel on its grand opening.

The whole thing is a remarkable example of the longstanding tension between advertising and editorial, the divide between which has been tenuous for as long as journalists have relied on advertising as their primary revenue source. That is to say, native advertising is not a product of the internet.

And the Honolulu Advertiser’s native advertising package isn’t an anomaly, either. Early 20th-century newspaper archives are stippled with references to the “paid write-up.” Back then, as today, sponsored content was considered by many editorial types to be one of the lowest forms of advertising — it was seen as sneaky and underhanded in an industry that journalists already distrusted.

In 1915, The Tulsa Daily World promoted an upcoming edition that would be completely free of advertising, a quality it characterized as a virtue: “There is absolutely no advertising revenue in this issue, not one paid write-up, not one display advertisement.” Sponsored content was so common that newspapers sometimes labeled editorial content as not sponsored. For instance, The Arizona Republican’s 1915 story, “Advertisement for Arizona Weather,” explicitly states: “Not a paid write-up but a true story.” (Maybe not the best headline choice, guys.)

It was not just sponsored content but also fluff that irked some in the industry in those days. In 1917, several newspapers ran a syndicated column that characterized sponsored content and puff pieces as “publishers’ enemy,” quoting then-New York Times business manager Louis Wiley as saying that nothing that could be considered “free publicity” should appear editorially when it really ought to be a paid advertisement.

“The fact that so many publishers are still giving away their news space to matters that should be exploited through paid advertising has hampered the [Bureau of Advertising] in its work of developing newspaper advertising,” said Wiley, who argued newspapers have no use for “the paid write-up,” and likened such advertisements to prostitution.

In the 1960s, The New York Times would offer op-ed space to paid advertisers “as much as we can sell the ads, which has been quite a lot,” according to legendary Timesman John B. Oakes in a 1978 interview. (Oakes, who was editorial page editor, didn’t condone the practice. He referred to a notorious paid write-up for Mobil as something that “makes me boil… because I think it’s so outrageous.”)

That the New York Times is now publishing native advertisements isn’t a signal of some brave new world. Rather, it harkens back to the old one.

Check out these three cartoons from the June 9, 1959, edition of The New Yorker — all drawn in the classic New Yorker cartoon style, but two of them are advertisements:

One of The New Yorker’s more contemporary dustups over the line between editorial and advertising came in 2005 — and it happened in print, not online. The magazine sold the ad space in the Aug. 22, 2005, issue to a sole advertiser, Target, which filled The New Yorker’s pages with the red and white scheme of its bullseye logo — with varying degrees of subtlety.

The cover of the issue was festooned with red-and-white beach balls, a design choice that critics said looked too much like the Target bullseye logo to be an accident.

Though new platforms have emerged, the core conversation about native advertising is not original. Not even close. Posturing that native advertising is a product of the internet age is not only wrong, it obfuscates essential and constructive conversations about the practice. Almost any discussion of “new practices” online is rebutted by a study of newspapers. If you turn to page four of the New-York Daily Tribune of May 5, 1888, you’ll find the “Talk of the Day” section: “Senator Ingalls climbed the Tall Sycamore of the Wabash yesterday (Washington Critic).”

Sponsored content still raises plenty of valid concerns among those committed to journalistic independence. Of course the industry ought to debate the use of advertorials. Should they be published at all? And if so, how should they look? What language ought to be used when news organizations tweet links to paid content? Are there any advertisers who ought to be banned from placing paid write-ups at all? Etc., etc., etc.

It’s crucial that readers discern advertising from editorial content, but it’s equally important that publishers talk about how to distinguish between open-platform publishing and stories subject to editorial scrutiny, for instance.

The difference today is not the introduction of native ads — which happened long ago — but the reality that publishing is no longer only in the hands of the influential few who control printing presses. In other words, the group of professionals talking about the ethics of publishing paid content represents a tiny portion of the larger group of content producers. I happen to think this democratization in publishing is ultimately great for journalism, but it also creates a lot of unknowns for a class of professionals who hate not knowing things.

So here’s what we know: The 20th-century journalism business model is busted. News organizations that want to survive are going to be open to all kinds of funding ideas, including old-school strategies like native advertising. It’s not the internet’s fault that native advertising exists. Journalism needs diversified funding streams.

Besides, anyone who wants to have a constructive conversation about journalism’s future doesn’t obsess over Then vs. Now, blogger vs. journalist, or pixels vs. ink; she asks the questions that should already be on the tip of any journalist’s tongue: What’s next? And why does it matter?

Adrienne LaFrance is a reporter based mostly in Washington, D.C. She believes skepticism and optimism aren’t mutually exclusive. Find her on Twitter @AdrienneLaF. An earlier version of this piece included a piece of editorial from the Times that we classified as advertorial; it was not.