The line between journalism and public relations can be fuzzy, and news organizations have wrestled with that problem for some time. However, that line recently has become more blurred than ever, with some publications enlisting armies of nonprofessional scribes to satisfy an insatiable appetite for content.
It's easy to understand why the problem has mushroomed. Demand for copy has gone up. The number of people to produce it and the revenue it generates have gone down. The result has been the rise of business models that embrace dubious editorial practices in the pursuit of fatter bottom lines.
One such practice is the use of contributor networks to fill Web pages. Networks of writers, usually with some measure of expertise in a subject, have become attractive to some publishers because they often can pay nothing or next-to-nothing for the content. They're attractive to subject experts, too, providing them with opportunities to get their bylines in prominent publications.
Since those networks largely depend on voluntary disclosure policies to vet contributors, the practice is ripe for abuse, as Stephen Gandel discovered several years ago, when examining contributors to financial websites.
"In the past year or so, several finance websites -- including Forbes.com, Seeking Alpha, Wall St. Cheat Sheet, and others -- have published articles by authors who were allegedly paid to promote the stocks they were writing about," he wrote in a 2014 Fortune article.
"These articles were not labeled as advertisements and carried no disclosures that the authors had been compensated by their subjects," Gandel continued.
It doesn't appear that things have changed much since Gandel's piece appeared.
The practice of paying journalists and others for publishing promotional content while making no mention of the money changing hands is very much alive, according to Jon Christian, who conducted an investigation of "payola" in online publications and reported his findings in a 3,000-word article for The Outline last year.
Christian interviewed more than two dozen marketers, journalists and others about individuals and marketing firms that paid journalists to promote their clients in articles and keep the arrangements on the QT.
All the publications in which the journalists placed articles and took payoffs had strict policies prohibiting such behavior, but apparently that did not deter some writers from supplementing whatever the publication was paying them with some under-the-table money.
"In that journalistic netherworld, where business leaders can pay to write about their own industries and publicists are trusted to write about topics related to their own clients," Gandel wrote, "it can feel as though a dark new media zeitgeist has swept away old norms of integrity and independence and replaced them with a racket that, depending on your perspective, is either very funny or very sad."
Payola is not limited to writers. "Earned" or "organic" public relations is among the services offered by firms such as JoTo PR of Tampa, Florida, for example. Earned PR is the result of a journalist following up on a PR person's story pitch and developing it into an article for publication.
For example, a company that has sponsored a survey may release results that reveal some insights about its industry or consumers, which can be spun into a trends story.
For the last several months, though, there has been a disturbing turn with respect to earned PR pitches, according to Karla Jo Helms, JoTo's chief evangelist and anti-PR strategist.
"I've noticed that more publications are coming back and saying, 'We're not doing earned media any more. You can pay us $350, and we'll do a mention -- more and we'll do an article,'" she told the E-Commerce Times.
That happens at only a small percentage of the publications JoTo deals with, Helms said. "It started to get on my radar when I started talking to my delivery team and found medical and health care publications doing it."
"How can they be doing their due diligence on these health care products and services?" she asked. "It would seem that they would be beholden to the person that paid them."
As media outlets mine new ways to make money, the distinction between ads and editorial content can be a casualty. The rise of the "advertorial," or "native advertising," is an example of that. It is the practice of packaging advertising in a format that looks like editorial content, creating the illusion of earned public relations.
Advertorials succeed in misleading people, in part, by tamping down their skepticism and expectations for truth in advertising, according to a Dartmouth College-Stanford University study of health advertorial published in 2016.
An advertorial is supposed to be clearly identified. If it isn't, an advertiser is courting trouble, according to a media kit for pitch outfits prepared by The Seattle Times.
"Studies have shown that an advertorial can often generate better response [than] a direct promotion, but to avoid any confusion and potential customer backlash, advertisers must take extra care to clearly define the space as commercial, not editorial," the paper notes.
"In today's skeptical society, anything less than total transparency can be fatal to a company's reputation," it continues.
"Any time you do something and you don't disclose it, you know it's probably not OK," JoTo's Helms added.
Making paid advertising look like earned public relations can be an effective tool if used correctly, noted Elizabeth Lampert, president of Elizabeth Lampert PR in Los Angeles.
"One could argue it's sort of like product placement where people pay for their product to be highlighted in movies and other venues," she told the E-Commerce Times.
"If you are providing content and you are using native advertising or advertorials, the line is blurred if and when you are being deceptive or providing false information," Lampert said.
"There is definitely a market for this, and in our content-driven world it has to be considered in any type of PR campaign. Today, there's no solid line where paid media ends and earned media takes over. You'll find people using a blend of the two," she observed.
"The tricky part about this for a PR company is it runs a fine line if there is any suggestion of deception," Lampert added. "You don't want to get a reputation for creating content that has every intention of tricking the audience into thinking an ad is actually editorial content."
There is no wiggle room when it comes to paying for product placement in news and feature stories, maintained Dan Kennedy, an associate professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.
"Pay to play is completely unacceptable, but it's also understandable, since writers have to pay the rent just like anyone else," said Kennedy, author of The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century.
"Media organizations that pay their contributors little or nothing are reaping what they've sown," he told the E-Commerce Times, "and they have little credibility when they express outrage about the practice."
John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and Government Security News. Email John.