Comment: 'Taxpayer-sponsored' Media Watch slams advertiser-sponsored content

Frank Chung
By Frank Chung | 22 April 2014
Media Watch host Paul Barry.

It's very easy for the ABC, which receives more than $1 billion in taxpayer funding a year, to criticise commercial outlets for trying to turn a dollar.

Media Watch's piece on native advertising last night – apparently inspired by this exchange between host Paul Barry and's Rob Stott over an article called 'What Your Biscuit Says About You' – took issue with the blurring of lines between news and sponsored content.

The Age, The SMH, The Guardian, BBC Worldwide and all got a rap on the knuckles for running advertorials, or 'native advertising'. As did the concept of 'brand journalism', in the vein of ANZ's recent launch of custom publication BlueNotes, headed by former AFR journo Andrew Cornell.

"Cornell, who was an award-winning journalist at the Financial Review, says the new venture is the future of journalism," Barry said. "We wish him success but we hope he's wrong."

Irrespective of your views on the merits or otherwise of native advertising, or where you stand in the culture wars between the state broadcaster and News Corp, the reality is traditional publishers need to find new revenue streams.

Their job is made much harder by the behemoth that is the ABC, which is arguably squeezing out the commercial media sector. Although to be fair, the ABC has also led the charge in positioning for the digital age. ABC iView is an example where commercial broadcasters quietly acknowledge the public broadcaster has led the innovation race.

But as Senator Cory Bernardi pointed out in December: "Taxpayers are right to question the nearly $1.2 billion which is, and I use these terms, cannibalising the commercial media market. I don't think that it's in the national interest for us to have a weakened commercial media sector and a rapidly growing state broadcaster."

Of course Barry is right about the need for advertorial to be clearly identified, but his sign-off was a not-so-subtle middle finger to critics of the ABC: "In the interests of disclosure we should say that Media Watch tonight has also been sponsored... By you, the taxpayer. So thank you. We hope we’ve given you value for money."

News Corp, which is engaged in a pitched battle with the ABC over that very issue of "value for money", has uncharacteristically opted not to fan the flames – as yet – in responding to Barry's piece, saying only in a statement: "We have run native advertising in the past and would do so again if an advertiser requested it."

Fairfax Media native advertising guru, custom solutions commercial manager Felix Krueger, told AdNews while the show gave a good snapshot of what's happening in the Australian landscape, it "could have been more balanced in the sense of native advertising being a new revenue stream, considering the revenue decline in print and online".

"I think since [the ABC] is not in a position that they require advertising funding, yes [it is ironic]," he said. "Just the way it was portrayed shows that the commercial reality is probably something they don't have to deal with. But if you're in that position you're lucky."

Krueger said transparency in its native offering was a high priority for Fairfax. "We always have a disclaimer. We have actually managed to be quite transparent in that sense. I don't think everybody in the Australian media landscape has tried to make it as obvious as we have – but again the question is whether people care or not."

On the other hand, Neil Ackland, CEO of youth publisher Sound Alliance and native advertising advocate, said the show was "reasonably balanced considering some of the angles they could have taken".

"I think it was good for the whole category in general to have that kind of debate," he said. "It raises awareness of what we're trying to do and legitimises the category. We welcome the debate and encourage it to continue – native is not one-size-fits-all."

Personally I'm on the fence about native advertising, even if it's probably where the industry is headed in the long run. Print advertising revenue is evaporating and making a dollar in digital is no easy task.

But unless everyone in this industry wants to wind up working for the Ministry of Truth, we need to support any attempt by publishers to open up new revenue streams.

Frank Chung
Deputy Print Editor

• And on that note, here's practicing what we preach: this very issue will be discussed by a panel at the Media Sales Summit on 22 May. Fairfax's Felix Krueger, Sound Alliance's Neil Ackland, Vice's Alex Light and Guardian Australia's Ian McClelland will come together to explore the new world of native advertising and what it means for marketers. Tickets here.

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