Advertising is separate from editorial content. There’s a visual boundary between the two. They also look and feel different. But native advertising — to which we’ll return shortly — is an exception. Just the same, all advertising serve very different purposes from editorial content. Never the twain shall meet.
Advertising is paid. Editorial content is unpaid. Advertising is handled by sales reps. Editorial content is handled by journalists. Advertising promotes whatever the advertiser wants.
Editorial content is what journalists deem newsworthy or of enough informational value. But recent times, the visual boundary between advertising and editorial content has, in some cases, been blurred.
The media have adopted a new form of advertising called native advertising, which is more effective as it mimics editorial content.
Native advertising has been defined as “the use of paid ads that match the look, feel and function of the media format in which they appear”. Unlike traditional advertising, native advertising closely imitates the look and feel of an editorial article. Native advertisements are also referred to as sponsored content, advertorials, advertising features or branded content.
The most recent example of native advertising in the Nation is the series on developments in counties. They carry the general title “Stories of Transformation”. They also carry the label “Advertising Feature”. The label appears on the folio — the line at the top of the page that gives the name of the newspaper, publication date and page number. It’s easy for the reader to miss the label and think the ad is part of the editorial content.
Compromised or altered
In its editorial policy, NMG makes it clear how native advertising should be handled. It states that great care must be taken to safeguard the integrity and sanctity of NMG’s editorial products. “There should never be any suspicion that editorial content has been compromised or altered in any way for commercial reasons,” it says. Furthermore, “journalists and editors should never get involved in commercial (advertising) negotiations”.
That didn’t seem to happen last week.
On Thursday, the Daily Nation published two pages of native advertising and an op-ed by Kiambu County Governor James Nyoro, all apparently driven by the sales reps. Readers could easily draw a connection between the native advertising and the op-ed.
Op-eds are opinion pieces — traditionally published opposite the editorial (hence the term “op-ed”) — that are printed in the Opinion section of the Nation and are intended to provide thoughtful discussion and analysis. Did the Editorial Department abdicate its role?
The question arises because an impression was created that one can “buy” space in the Opinion pages. Dr Nyoro’s op-ed, “Boost smallholder farmers to bolster food security in Africa” (on page 15) reads like it was thrown into the bargain in the negotiations for the native advertising on pages 20 and 21.
The op-ed is, word for word, a shorter version of the native advertising article, “Appreciating AGRA for championing the best interest of our farmers” on page 20, written by “H.E. James Nyoro, Governor of Kiambu County”. It is obviously shortened to fit the space in the prestigious Opinion pages.
Both the op-ed and the article open with exactly the same words: “I have been a technocrat for most of my working life, some of which was spent leading the Rockefeller Foundation’s Africa office as the managing director.” Both end exactly with the same words: “Based on my constant engagement with smallholder farmers, Agra is regarded as a farmer’s friend and will continue to contribute to Africa’s long-term dream of achieving sustainable agricultural transformation.”
A reader would reject the op-ed as fake because it’s a repeat of the same article in the same paper. It’s uncompetitive in the highly competitive Opinion pages. It’s a space waster, the result of a marketing strategy “Buy One, Get One Free”. This time an op-ed was thrown in as a bonus.
The good governor paid Sh780,000 for one page and got one free, the Advertising Department told the Public Editor’s office. Dr Nyoro got the best deal ever. Whether he made the best use of it is another matter. But, bundling native advertising with an op-ed flouts NMG editorial policy and raises ethical questions.
The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: [email protected] Call or text 0721989264.