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Journalist Criticizes Rise of Sponsored Content in Media

By John P. Finnegan, Crimson Staff Writer

Speaking before a crowded room in Harvard Law School’s Austin Hall, online journalist Andrew Sullivan discussed how the rise of sponsored content in journalism has begun to erode the foundation of the Fourth Estate.

While the talk was titled “How Advertising Defeated Journalism,” Sullivan focused his criticism on sponsored content, which he defined as a piece in a magazine or newspaper that “looks almost identical to every other article in the magazine, but in fact is written by a copy-writer, hired by a corporation.” Sponsored content, he argued, endangers “the entire enterprise of writing.”

“You think you’re reading a writer when you’re actually reading a copy-writer,” said Sullivan, particularly singling out Buzzfeed as a prime example of what he considers problematic.

Sullivan, who founded the online journalism website The Dish also heavily criticized more traditional media outlets, including The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Atlantic, and many other publications for participating in the trend, and even worse, for failing to apologize for it.

“There is a conspiracy of silence in the media about the media’s own silence,” said Sullivan, pointing to a situation when The Atlantic ran a sponsored article by the Church of Scientology and the “business-side of the magazine,” rather than any editorial representatives, apologized for the uproar that ensued, while also censoring the comments that appeared on its site.

“Does it matter whether any of this stuff is actually related to the truth? Of course not. The truth is a peripheral matter,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan blamed the proliferation of sponsored content on the rise of the Internet and the resulting diffusion of advertising revenue and collapse of the subscription model.

Internet pageviews traditionally drive advertising revenue, but as total pageviews increased, the advertisers’ impact was “inevitably diffused,” he said.

“So along comes this amazing thing called ‘sponsored content,’” he said.

Sullivan said he believed that the increasing popularity of sponsored content would eventually lead to widespread reader cynicism and an eventual reduction of the effectiveness in sponsored content.

“After a while, in this circus of desperate attempts to get attention…there will be a moment in which the average reader will look at The New York Times and be so disgusted by what it’s become,” he said, adding that he wanted his journalism company, The Dish, “to be there when that happens.”

Sullivan characterized The Dish, which uses a yearly subscription model and currently has 28,000 members, as an alternative path for journalism.

However, Caroline O’Donovan, an audience member and staff writer at the Nieman Journalism Lab, asked Sullivan whether his model could work for journalists who lack the prominence he had when he launched The Dish.

In response, Sullivan said it had taken him 14 years to reach the point he was at now. “If we can get 28,000 subscribers, why can’t anyone else?” he asked. “Why are they so afraid?”

—Staff Writer John P. Finnegan can be reached at finnegan@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @finneganspake.

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