The line between editorial and advertising

There have been two really interesting examples in the last month of, well, “creative license,” by traditional media players (the LA Times and ESPN.com) who have sold some of their most-valuable editorial real estate as ad space. I think it’s worth bringing up because I have a pretty sizable problem with the practice.

Just yesterday, one of the biggest portals out there on the Web (and, not to mention, part of my daily routine is to check it multiple times during the day) decided to make a pretty crucial decision when it came to ad space. Look at the screen below. everything in the red boxes on the homepage of ESPN.com is an ad from Apple:

Gary Vaynerchuk argues that his biggest issue is how this ad changed the user experience and the ability to find those key headlines. I agree with him (and his thoughts are embedded below): this is a ridiculous change. For me, though, it’s greater than usability (as I tweeted yesterday). By selling that space, it obliterated any integrity that ESPN was holding on to as a breaking news source.

I think the timing on this is interesting, because just a few weeks ago, the LA Times did a very similar thing. Look at this image of its front page below, that box on the right? A “story” on one of the characters from NBC’s new show, Southland:


That’s even more embarrassing, to me, than the ESPN.com issue (although I disagree with both). Say what you will about ESPN.com, but one of the last remaining nostalgias of newspapers is what it means for a front page story. Even the LAT staff was upset about it.

Has it gotten that bad for traditional media that they are willing to sell that much of their soul? (Sidebar: I very much consider ESPN.com to be a traditional, top-down, non-conversational medium that shouldn’t be called “new” or “social,” since, well, the Internet has been around long enough and the site isn’t *that* social.) The problem for me is that advertisers are getting almost too much say in what the editorial can be. And that’s dangerous because if it keeps going, those who pay will be able to set the agenda, and not public discourse or journalism.

The media isn’t dying, but, I have to say, a few more moves like this across other news sources, and it’ll officially be on life support.

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