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Publisher offers alternative advertising forum

MediaPlanetIncreasingly, newspaper readers have been turning the pages to find what looks like an ordinary newspaper article about a medical or diet breakthrough that turns out to be an advertisement masquerading as a straight news piece.

A company called MediaPlanet is putting a new spin on this practice by creating advertising-based publications that also include thoroughly researched editorial content. Calling itself the “leading independent publisher of focused reports financed by advertisements and distributed with leading newspapers and online sites,” the company was originally formed in Sweden and now has over a dozen offices worldwide, including several in North America.

The company holds standing contracts with a number of major newspapers including USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times and Chicago Tribune. Ideas for potential reports are generated internally by MediaPlanet staff members, who then pitch the concepts — often dozens at a time — to their newspaper clientele.

Once an idea is green-lit by a particular paper, MediaPlanet proceeds directly to advertisers to fund the project and engages a team of freelancers to perform all required research and writing. The resulting reports are 50 percent editorial and 50 percent advertorial, typically appearing in the form of slick, magazine-like inserts. The reports cover a vast array of topics from business and technology to health and wellness; recent subjects have included plastic surgery, e-gambling and organic foods.

The upside for newspapers that distribute MediaPlanet reports appears to be fairly straightforward. Without having to use any in-house editorial staff, the papers get well-produced niche supplements on topics appealing to their readership that also happen to bring in much-needed advertising revenue. In a sense, the practice could be described as outsourcing with a twist, and MediaPlanet as an alternative form of a content farm.

On the flip-side, advertisers who finance the publications benefit from a classy presentation that places their product in a larger, real-world context. A recent MediaPlanet article, for example, profiled a family whose lives were saved by a newly installed fire alarm in their house. The piece was accompanied by an ad for DSC, a company that makes home security systems.

Nowhere does the word “advertising” appear on the sample reports posted to MediaPlanet’s website. Instead, a description, such as “an independent supplement by MediaPlanet to New York Daily News,” is printed across the top of certain pages. Some might see this as misleading to readers. The Los Angeles Times – which incidentally is on MediaPlanet’s list of clients – came under fire this summer for a similar practice in which they printed a four-page wraparound advertisement promoting Universal Studio’s new King Kong attraction. The ad, although labeled as such, was disguised to look like a news item in its “LAT Extra” section.

Aron Ping D’Souza, editor of the Journal Jurisprudence and co-chair of the Committee for Newspaper and Media Integrity, addressed the potential ethical issues behind this practice in an e-mail interview. “It is well established,” said D’Souza, “that the print newspaper industry is in significant financial strain. Newspapers must become more adept at finding new income sources. Advertorial inserts may be one of these new income sources.” However, he added, such inserts “should be discouraged” as they are “incompatible” with the idea of journalistic integrity. “The market niche of newspapers is delivering reliable, informed news, and maintaining that is essential to restoring the industry to profitability. Good journalism is good business,” he said.

Despite such potential controversy, it appears that the trend towards advertising/editorial hybrids is catching on across other media platforms as well. Studio One Networks, for instance, creates sophisticated websites for major corporate sponsors using a similar model to the one followed by MediaPlanet. Both companies can boast a rapidly expanding and high-profile list of clients; this seems to indicate that the line between editorial and advertorial content is becoming increasingly blurred.

— Katrina Wolfe

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